America faces a raft of very serious problems. This blog routinely pontificates about them–usually by citing from various media resources that have highlighted them. Over the past several years I have become increasingly convinced that it is the state of that media–especially its fragmented nature–that has exacerbated all of them.
That conviction won’t come as a surprise to longtime readers of this blog–it’s the “dead horse” I’ve been flogging for years.
The Pew Research Center recently issued a report on the current nature of what we like to call traditional media–primarily newspapers and broadcast (radio and television). For the first time, newspapers made more money from individual subscriptions than from advertising. That looks superficially like good news, but is really a reflection of the extent to which the business model that sustained those newspapers over the years has collapsed.
That collapse is why more than 2000 local newspapers have ceased publication during the past decade, and one of the reasons (along with their acquisition by greedy national companies) why so many of those that remain have been able to maintain only skeletal reporting staffs.
Yes, national papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been able to maintain and even grow both their reporting staffs and their subscribers, but in the cities and towns where citizens depend upon the press for the incredibly important watchdog function, these “ghost” papers no longer have the capacity to do so.
I’ve ranted about all of this in previous posts–flogging that “dead horse”–and noting the multiple consequences, but I keep coming back to what is, in my view, the most significant problem created by our current media environment: the facilitation of informational silos. Bubbles enable us to confirm our pre-existing biases, and–perhaps even worse– to avoid recognizing what we don’t know.
As I used to tell my students, even newspapers that were never particularly good–the Indianapolis Star comes to mind–served one very important function: they provided the citizens of a community with a common description of their local reality. Even if you only picked up the newspaper to see sports scores, you saw the same headlines your neighbors saw. The local school board was embroiled in a debate. Local crime rates had increased. The city was issuing bonds for a new library, and that might affect your property tax rate.
Today, good luck scanning the Indianapolis Star for education news– reporters will cover school board meetings only when enraged racists descend on board meetings to demand that schools stop teaching something they don’t teach anyway. If you want to know anything else about education policy, you need to go to sources like Chalkbeat, an online media resource covering education.
And that’s the problem.
In various conversations, I’ve asked people if they have ever heard of Chalkbeat–or a few of the other specialized sources that cover discrete areas of our common life. Very few have. We are at a point where the information we need in order to be minimally-informed citizens is “out there,” but only available to those who know enough–and are motivated enough–to search for it.
You may not have children in school, but what the local school board does affects your property values. You may be disinterested in the proceedings of your local department of transportation, but those proceedings will determine the condition of the streets you drive on. You may not care about the financial woes of a local hospital, but if you have a health emergency, those woes will suddenly become relevant.
Look–I’m not one of those people who looks back fondly at a past that never existed. I know that most people, even those who subscribed to local papers, tended to skim over the articles that didn’t interest them. For that matter, a lot of folks didn’t even subscribe–at best, they tuned in to the local TV news at dinnertime to hear brief summaries that the stations had usually gotten from the local newspapers. The point is, they saw the same headlines. They heard the same summaries.
They might argue over the accuracy of the reporting, or what it meant, but they shared a common starting-point.
The absence of local, in-depth news contributes to American polarization by nationalizing news consumption. Pew found that in 2020, Fox News’ prime time average audience increased by 61%, CNN’s increased by 72% and MSNBC’s grew by 28%.
Perhaps what we need are local versions of aggregators like the Huffington Post–one-stop “entry points” with short blurbs and links to the specialized sites that are doing credible, professional reporting on particular slices of what should be our common civic concerns.
National news is important–but so is verifiable, credible scrutiny of local governments and civic organizations.