As regular readers of this blog know, I have a couple of abiding preoccupations. Civic literacy is one, and an allied anxiety is the loss of local journalism.
Please understand: when social scientists and bloggers bewail the death spiral of America’s newspapers, we aren’t talking about physical paper. We are talking about a lack of journalism. If reporters are covering local news adequately, digital delivery doesn’t equate to loss–and the continuing presence of a print edition is not evidence that journalism is occurring.
I’m hardly the only person expressing considerable concern over the emerging consequences of this loss. A friend recently shared with me some preliminary findings from a study of Indiana journalism currently being funded by folks who are equally worried. It’s proprietary, so I can’t share it, but I can share one set of observations that I think sum up what might accurately be called our local news deserts.
The researchers identified six areas of coverage that most people would consider important: crime, governance, economic development, environment and public health, business and education. They then surveyed the local media in order to identify what was currently being covered in each of those areas–and followed up by interviewing a number of residents, people who live in the area served (or not) by that media. In those interviews, they asked people what sorts of information they think they need in each category.
You will not be surprised to learn that there was not a good fit between what people feel they need to know and the information they are actually getting.
In the category of government, for example, the research found “intermittent enterprise coverage” and “sporadic, stenography-style local and county coverage” that is often simply repetitive of public announcements. The announcements themselves received little scrutiny, and even that occurred only in certain areas. They found that statehouse coverage was “fragmented” and “not well distributed.” (My own description would have been considerably more critical…)
When they asked people to identify information that would make them more informed voters and citizens–they evidently got an earful. People wanted “more accessible, relevant explanations” of what is going on in all levels of governance; reporting, for example, on the planning processes that determine how millions of dollars of federal assistance will be applied, as well as much more information about government budgeting in general. And not surprisingly, people wanted more investigative reporting that would uncover and highlight corruption.
Across all of the categories, the research found a lack of context, and a lack of explanatory material connecting the dots between decisions made and the probable or demonstrated effects of those decisions on individuals and communities. Words like “unscrutinized” and phrases like “no follow-up” were frequent in the description of current coverage.
There is a lot to criticize about the media environment in which we find ourselves. Right now, Americans have access to a large number of sources covering national governance and politics. Several of those sources are solid and informative–others are closer to propaganda outlets–but adequate, even insightful news coverage of government at the federal level is available. The hole–the empty space–is local, and the research tells us that the consequences of that vacuum are both negative and serious.
A recent article from Governing detailed some of those consequences.
Recent academic studies show that newspaper closures and declining coverage of state and local government in general have led to more partisan polarization, fewer candidates running for office, higher municipal borrowing costs and increased pollution.
“Inarguably, no matter what side of the political fence you sit, [in the absence of] a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things,” said Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive and current director of corporate affairs for Dollar Bank in Cleveland, in response to the most recent Plain Dealer layoffs. “Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”
To which I would add my recurring concern that, in the absence of a common, widely-read source of local news, it is all too easy for neighbors to occupy wildly different realities–to live in what are effectively different communities.
One out of five Americans currently lives in a “news desert” with little to no access to reliable local media coverage, and that doesn’t even count the many areas with “ghost” newspapers like the Indianapolis Star.
We desperately need a rebirth of local journalism, so I am rooting for the success of the Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital upstart launched by a Baltimore businessman, that will be dedicated to local coverage of the city. He must agree with me about the importance of local news–he has committed $50 million of his own fortune to the enterprise.
Lots of us will be watching. With bated breath.
18 thoughts on “What We Need To Know–And HOW We Need To Know It”
Local desert, eh?
What hasn’t become a local desert?
What IS thriving at the local level?
Restaurants – mainly fast or casual sit-down places to eat.
What just happened after 2 years of a pandemic when a good amount of workers found out they could do their jobs at home through the internet?
How many Boomers understand cryptocurrency or the metaverse like Roblox?
If all the information in your local community is gathered or collected and placed on the internet for you to “look it up” or “connect” to it from the comfort of your home, why do you need an intermediary like a stenographer, reporter, or journalist? 😉
My question to the local Chamber President a decade ago is parents complain that their daughter’s basketball game isn’t covered by the local newspaper, yet when I go to a game, all the parents are there looking at their Smartphones which have live video equipment.
That was a decade ago and he stole my idea but did nothing with it other than work with a radio station to set up their own website approved by the local oligarchy. LOL
If you still don’t get it — it’s not an end-user problem who is already connected to the internet. It’s the government’s fault for not getting their business on the internet, or it’s the team’s fault for not producing a live feed of their basketball games.
I find that the IbJ has more substantive coverage, and not just business news, than the Star. But I agree that local news from every source is sadly lacking. National and world news is also disappointing. When I looked for coverage of Biden’s meetings yesterday, I calculated that 50% of CNN was commercials and about 30% was devoted to more titillating stories like the Cuomo case. No wonder I usually stick to PBS. When they finally got to Biden the focus was on the abortion-communion issue that is apparently of more interest to the media than to Biden and the Pope. Why would the two ever talk about climate or Covid or world peace instead?
When we lived in Morgan County, we got home delivery of the NY Times every day – in a rural area. I haven’t tried to get it where we live now, in Jacksonville, FL, because I doubt that anyone could find us in the large apartment complex we are in now, and I don’t see any papers on doorsteps when I go out for my morning constitutional walk.
So I read the Times “on-line.” It is better than nothing, but not in any way comparable to the print edition. The front page, the editorial page and the Op-Ed page are covered, but little else. For example, I hardly ever see anything that usually is in the business section of the print edition. What I see each day is mainly a few news items and the Op-Ed columnists. The rest of the items posted are repeated for the rest of the week. I don’t expect to see everything that is normally in the NY City edition, nor what is printed in the Mid-West edition. But the use of repetition suggests to me that the paper doesn’t really care about the on-line customers. If management had any foresight they would recognize that they are missing an opportunity. And they have been missing it for at least a decade. It’s time for some reshuffling in management.
The local paper is not any better. A few news items and a lot of other things that are repeated over and over.
I don’t think it’s a supply problem (remember supply and demand from a couple days ago?). Just the other day I made a rare stop at a bar and grill in the little town near my home. I had the local paper with me and usually leave it at the bar for the owner and other patrons to read when I’m done. When the owner asked me if there was anything of significance in it I told him, sadly, no and shared my disappointment that there was no coverage of a very significant economic development project in the area. He said he knew nothing about it other than somebody was working on something. Here’s the rub: this guy sits on the town council.
I think the issue you addressed today has MORE to do with your other passion, that of civic literacy, than it does the loss of local journalism. In fact, I would argue that the latter is a symptom if the former and not a separate issue at all. In order for people to fulfill their civic obligations, they must be well informed…and to do that they must want to be informed. I happen to be a naturally curious person…I just feel more satisfied with life when I know what’s going on…that’s why I read constantly and across a wide range of topics – I’ve always been a jack of all trades and master of none.
But there’s no denying that the national, state and local oligarchies that Todd refers to created the environment where the “price” that media platforms are willing to pay for the written word has collapsed to a point where it will not sustain the livelihoods for many of those who write those words. So the problem is systemic and must be addressed at its roots and not the surface.
Just a couple of days ago I was lamenting how frustrating it is that our elected leaders can’t even eliminate one of the most egregious tax loopholes in human history – that of “carried interest”. Another is the federal law that exempts CMS, the Medicare administration, from negotiating prices with Big Pharma. At least one poll indicated recently that 83% of all Americans support the repeal of that exemption. So, at this writing, I cannot fathom our federal government taking on the special interests that have led to all the “deserts” they’ve created in order to extract wealth.
So it’s not enough to stop the GQP fascists from installing permanent one party rule nationally as they have already in states like ours. Permanent, systemic structural changes have to happen to have any chance of saving the democratic republic we’ve enjoyed for 245 years. Bernies Sanders has been screaming this from the rooftop for decades but big media, and especially FAUX, have been successful at branding he and his followers left-wing-loonies as they only report on their calls for massive expansion of federal spending programs. In fairness, the left is also guilty of trying to peddle expanded government services over reform to generate populist approval and win votes because, well, reform is boring.
The brew is toxic. Lack of coverage allows more corruption. Corruption feeds feelings that government is useless. If government is useless, why bother to vote- or better yet, support autocracy.
Todd, sadly governments do dump everything on line, without context. Context is what reporters give us. The question is, “I know what it says, but what does it mean for me?” The answer is much harder to ascertain than one might think.
What disturbs me the most about the loss of newspapers and media outlets that cover the local news is the lack of investigative reporting into local government officials and corporations. For example, I hardly ever hear anything about Eli Lilly’s anymore. The take over of newspapers by the oligarchy leads to a loss of free speech.
The local news media did cover the recent “debate” about redistricting and the controversy around it. If I want to learn more about Indiana’s state government, I have to listen to WFYI.
Someone has started a newspaper for Pike Township which has articles by the local fire dept. and police. It recently had information from the school board, and I have noted that Pike has had a lot of protests around teacher pay. The newspaper has just started up. I hope it continues. So far, I have not seen any reports from investigative journalists.
I recall that I put in an editorial in the Rushville Republican after I heard that they were discontinuing “Meals on Wheels”. I had helped start the program after my sophomore year in college. I wanted to make people aware that the elders who were shut in were losing a supportive group of people. They shut down the program anyway but at least I had a chance to try and awaken the local citizens to the costs they would suffer by closing that program down.
When I was in high school, every student had to take a course in government, and in junior high we studied Indiana history. I note that in many high schools students are given more choices about what courses they can omit. If that includes civics education, we are creating a younger generation that knows little regarding the way our government works. This fuels more disengagement by the citizenry and probably more mistrust of government institutions and lack of civic engagement.
I wish we had more entrepeneurs in journalism that could publish local newspapers without the influence of the repressive oligarchy.
Well, Peggy, you’re lucky because that “context” is going to be built into the metaverse. If you’ve heard, Facebook has already changed its name to Meta so they can participate in building this metaverse which going to be the next stage of the internet.
If it is done intelligently, it will be constructed from multiple players coming together to basically construct our real world into a 3d world – a metaverse.
Jack from Twitter has talked about this as well. At some point, the real world will become virtual or Twitter and Facebook will become an immersive experience as will governments, etc.
It’s hard for a 60 yr old man to explain, but we are reaching a point where our individual portal at the wall onto the internet will be an entry point to the metaverse without never leaving your recliner.
Here’s a briefer from the World Economic Forum:
“Meta” used alone is meaningless. When followed by something it means information about that something.
We have traded free (though very costly) entertainment for responsibility for what we each actually do in the world. Being free from responsibility is easy and mistake-proof. Being responsible is nowhere near as comfortable for those spoiled by entertainment.
Is there a way out? I hate to say it but there is but we will struggle mightily to avoid the discomfort of it. It’s only by the collapse of comfort and its partner, entertainment.
Whine, blame, whine, blame, whine, blame.
We don’t wanna.
I just don’t think that printing up a daily newspaper and delivering it to individual homes is a workable business model moving forward. Imagine the cost of that process v. simply putting electronic versions of the paper online. Money saved on creating and delivering papers can instead be spent on journalists writing quality stories.
Being older, I sympathize with those who prefer the paper version of the local newspaper. I do too. But it’s just not realistic moving forward.
CNN did a piece on George Soros and the Open Societies project to change media coverage nationallly. You’ll find such a huge bias and a noticeable non journalism on a national scale so much that we have to have a local paper doing our bidding for real news. Perhaps it will break up the horrific news cycle. CNN is no longer heard in airports because they are not self aware of who they have become. All of the major scandals of federal dollars being thrown around to people who dont deserve it like $450,000 to immmigrants whose families were separated when the illegally crossed the border. Thats our tax dollars supporting illegal immigration, its money we paid out of our hard earned money that goes to local programs funded by the government. Its as if this administration wants to single handidly undermine our federal programs that we fund with an burgeoning national debt. The real joke is journalsts not understanding anything about civic duty and local governments. Theyvare all being taught social justice in one of many ways so that they abandon all reality. Ive known a few journalism majors that has taken them time see the false facade they were taught at the university. I even know personally a person who is being dominated by a transgender person who was a journalism major at IU. Her whole reality from what she was raised has been abandoned now twenty years later she realizes she doesnt have the choice to have a family. People are truly be manipulated and hurt into realities we idealize. Do they understand civics at a level they paid tens of thousands of dollars into universities we support with our tax dollars.
These are my own experiences. On the whole I agree with the professor and this article. It is well put. But how do we get there?
I spent 13 years (distant) as a broadcast Journalist, mostly out of Indiana, but I grew up here in Indy and remember the Indiana media of the 1960’s and 70’s. I was a local reporter with a lot of contacts during the Watergate era, where Journalism pretty much across the country shined and politicians quaked.
Then came the demagogue Reagan who gutted the 1934 Communications Act and the “Fairness Doctrine.” While those directly affected only broadcast media, the secondary fallout did hit the print media and was ancient history by the advent of the internet.
Those missing regulations have denied a whole generation of guidelines and rules for Journalists, rules that kept things a whole lot more honest than they are now.
I have, by and large, never been real impressed with Indianapolis media. They sure suck worse now when it comes to political coverage.
John Krull, Director of Pulliam School of Journalism to speak Wed, Nov 3 at Domestic Decisions, 11am, Mid-North Shepherd’s Center at United Methodist Church, 38th and Meridian. Masks required. Topic:. Today’s Media.
Dear Sheila & friends,
In Denver and Colorado, we have been reeling since the shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News and the subsequent assimilation of smaller print newspapers throughout the region by The Denver Post and Prairie Mountain Media. In my current community, the Loveland Daily Reporter Herald, is an insult to fish-wrappers for regurgitating out of community articles and an absence of local content.
As I prepare to relocate back to metro Denver I am relying on online access subscriptions to still reputable US national news and international sources (that are more attentive and critical of US influencers). Locally, I subscribed to the online “Colorado SUN” and “Denver Gazette.”
Still, I miss substantive printed newspapers to start the day. Perhaps the true mark of a boomer intellectual and historian.
Those ascribing to the tribes of Republicans and Democrats do not want real news. They only want narratives they can cling onto and which underscores their beliefs,bias and prejudice. Propagate the shit.
Many on this very forum want to see Assange die. His crime was apparently being arrogant (Levine) and to cause their favored candidate to be viewed in askance.
What a lovely group.
Todd, I’m looking forward to Meta World Peace! Maybe we can all bring home an imaginary ring.
@ UR Deplorable. What courage! 🤔
Local, state, and national governments post a lot of information on line, but it’s only the information approved by the government, AND one often has to know exactly how to ask for something or it can’t be found.
We need government watchdogs, AND we need competition so that reporters and news outlets feel more motivation to guard against their own biases. Sadly, the profiteers now running newspapers don’t have an equal commitment to journalistic responsibilities. I am truly fearful for our democracy.
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