Tag Archives: journalism

Why We Need Journalism

Given the tensions in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, it was a relief to receive news of the  guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. Those verdicts owed much to a vastly more competent prosecution–and there has been widespread recognition of that fact and praise for that prosecutor.

What is far less widely recognized and celebrated, however, is that the trial wouldn’t even have occurred had it not been for a local reporter.

Larry Hobbs is the crime beat reporter at the Brunswick News, and he covered the initial story, which was pretty bare-bones. He got his information from the local police:: a burglary suspect had been shot and killed in Satilla Shores, a subdivision outside Brunswick, Ga.

The next day, a Monday, Hobbs managed to get Arbery’s name from the coroner and included it and a few more lines in a followup story. Then he wrote about the close involvement of district attorney’s office investigators in examining what happened, and about official silence on whether the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide or case of self defense. Those were the first of many stories Hobbs would write about the shooting on Satilla Drive in February 2020, an event that would go on to seize national attention. He fit that work between other daily news, his column and a crime blotter he writes….

Hobbs’ reporting ultimately played a major role in getting larger news outlets—and eventually civil rights groups and state law-enforcement agencies—interested in digging into what had happened. Hobbs and his many questions produced work that, while he himself admits it wasn’t always perfect, served a critical need. Now, almost two years later, with Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan having been convicted of murder and other charges, the weight of that role is clearer than ever, and at a moment when the future of local news reporters and newspapers is in jeopardy.

If Hobbs hadn’t been part of a local newspaper covering local news–if he hadn’t been “doing journalism”– the original prosecutor’s conflict of interest and actions covering for the McMichaels might never have come to light. When we talk about the “watchdog function” of journalism, this is what we are talking about.

As the Washington Post Magazine wrote last week in a special issue,

The state of local journalism is widely, and correctly, understood to be grim. About 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics.

Yet what is missing from these raw facts — depressing as they sound in the abstract — is a detailed sense of what, exactly, is being lost: the local controversies, wrongdoings and human-interest tales that are severely underreported or entirely untold.

The Post devoted the entirety of its Sunday magazine to stories that had been under-reported–or in several cases, not reported at all. (Some had been previously covered by outlets that are trying desperately to preserve a market for local journalism against long odds;  others were reports that were seeing the light of day for the first time.) All of them deserved “more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.”

I have previously posted about the continuing loss of journalism. Those of us bemoaning that loss are not talking about the loss of newsprint–the loss of physical paper. That is immaterial. We are talking about the loss of journalism, which can certainly be delivered digitally. As the Post reminded readers, in the last 15 years, a quarter of U.S. local newspapers have ceased publishing. Not just ceased producing newsprint–ceased publication. “By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.”

And that doesn’t even count the places like Indianapolis that do, theoretically, still have a newspaper–places where corporate ownership (in our case, Gannett) has decimated staff and eviscerated coverage, leaving communities with what are called “ghost” papers.

The Post used its special issue to remind readers that we don’t know what we don’t know–and a lot of what we don’t know is important.

When we lose local journalism, we lose a fabric that holds together communities; we lose crucial information that allows democracy to function; and at the most basic level, we lose stories that need to be told.

 

 

What We Need To Know–And HOW We Need To Know It

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.

It Isn’t Just Gannett

The consolidation of the country’s newspapers has been a preoccupation of  Americans who recognize the extreme importance of “the press”-who appreciate the outsized role that journalism plays in community and self-government. Large-scale, rapacious companies like Gannett (see yesterday’s post) have been the target of withering criticism for years.

But there’s a difference between corporations like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital.

Gannett and its ilk were convinced that they could operate newspapers more efficiently–that they could do more–or at least as much– with less, and thereby continue to enjoy the high profit margins that the industry used to provide. Quality journalism was secondary–it was just the widget/product that happened to generate the all-important profits. (The fact that the company greatly overpaid for many of the papers it purchased made that optimism unrealistic.) Their first loyalty was–and is– to the bottom line, but they at least give lip service to the importance of journalism.

Hedge funds like Alden never bothered; they’ve simply “strip mined” the newspapers they’ve purchased–intentionally destroying them. As the linked article puts it, these funds are composed of

investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self

The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital. Since they bought their first newspapers a decade ago, no one has been more mercenary or less interested in pretending to care about their publications’ long-term health. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that Alden-owned newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of their competitors; not coincidentally, circulation has fallen faster too, according to Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst who reviewed data from some of the papers. That might sound like a losing formula, but these papers don’t have to become sustainable businesses for Smith and Freeman to make money.

Alden’s aggressive cost-cutting makes Gannett look generous. The hedge fund has found a financially-rewarding formula: it continues to operate the newspapers it acquires at a profit for a few years, but during those years, it turns out a steadily worsening product and alienates subscribers.

This investment strategy does not come without social consequences. When a local newspaper vanishes, research shows, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagement. Misinformation proliferates. City budgets balloon, along with corruption and dysfunction. The consequences can influence national politics as well; an analysis by Politico found that Donald Trump performed best during the 2016 election in places with limited access to local news.

With its acquisition of Tribune Publishing earlier this year, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers, including some of the country’s most famous and influential: the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News. It is the nation’s second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Some in the industry say they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith and Freeman end up becoming the biggest newspaper moguls in U.S. history.

The linked article describes what happens after an acquisition by Alden, telling the stories of specific newspapers, the people who worked at them, and the cities and towns they no longer serve. It also profiles the men who run Alden–men who proudly identify themselves as “vulture capitalists” and who are identified by others as the “grim reapers” of journalism.( At least one of them–unsurprisingly–is a  major supporter of Donald Trump, whose constant attacks on the news alarmed people who understood the importance of journalism to democratic governance.)

I cannot do justice to the Atlantic’s thorough and meticulous reporting in a brief blog post. Everyone reading this should click through and read the well-researched and eye-opening article in its entirety.

The crisis in local journalism has been the subject of concern and debate for well over a decade. We are now at a point where–in the absence of viable replacements for what has been lost–repairing the damage to governance and community will be difficult to impossible to achieve.

I never imagined quoting Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, but without a robust and vigorous press, we won’t know what we don’t know.

If American democracy collapses, Mitch McConnell and the sniveling invertebrates in the  GOP will share responsibility with vulture capitalists like Alden Global Capital.

What We Lose When We Lose Local News

We live in a time of multiple crises, and–like all such times–there are a number of contributing causes. Arguably, one major contributor to Americans’ current inability to work together or even communicate is the media environment we inhabit.

Much has been written about disinformation and our improved ability to live in informational “bubbles.” Other consequences have received less attention.

That’s especially true when the loss is local–and it is at the local level where we have lost the most. Between newspaper closures (since 2004, the United States has lost a quarter— 2,100 – of its local newspapers, including 70 dailies and over 2,000 weeklies) and so-called  “ghost” papers–newspapers that are theoretically still functioning, but no longer have the ability to adequately cover local news–the situation at the local level is grim.

A recent article in the Atlantic focused on what we lose when we lose local news. “What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town,” was a “deep dive” into the loss of The Hawk Eye, a newspaper in Burlington, Iowa.

As the author noted, in her youth, the local newspaper was where teenagers looked for summer jobs, families found weekend tag sales and folks learned about openings of new stores and restaurants. “The paper was where we first learned that my close friend’s father had died in a Mississippi water-skiing accident. It was where my high-school Girl Scout troop got a half-page spread our senior year.”

Larger metropolitan papers ran fewer of those more homey items, but gave residents “news you can use” about local government agencies, schools and the goings-on at the State legislature. In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of residents once read the morning paper, and thus–as I have previously noted–occupied a common information environment.

The Indianapolis Star was never a particularly distinguished example of journalism, but after it was acquired by Gannett, it descended into irrelevance. The Hawk Eye may have served a small Iowa town, but the author’s description of what happened in the wake of its purchase by Gannett could have been written here.

The Hawk Eye isn’t dead yet, which sets it apart from many other local newspapers in America. Its staff, now down to three overstretched news reporters, still produces a print edition six days a week. But the paper is dying. Its pages are smaller than they used to be, and there are fewer of them. Even so, wide margins and large fonts are used to fill space. The paper is laid out by a remote design team and printed 100 miles away in Peoria, Illinois; if a reader doesn’t get her paper in the morning, she is instructed to dial a number that will connect her to a call center in the Philippines. Obituaries used to be free; now, when your uncle dies, you have to pay to publish a write-up.

These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as The Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The Opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists.

Why does this matter?

Research confirms that the loss of a properly functioning local paper leads to diminished participation in municipal elections, which become less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, driving costs up for local government. Disinformation proliferates because people start to get their “facts” from social media.

But as the author notes, the decline of The Hawk Eye also revealed a quieter, less quantifiable change.

When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days.

These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

The stories that connect the residents of larger cities and towns may differ from those she describes, but they are equally important. And thanks to rapacious companies like Gannett, they’ve been equally lost.

And then there’s Alden Global Capital, which I’ll discuss tomorrow….

 

Misinformation And A Shared Reality

Kathleen Hall Jamison is a towering figure in academic journalism–she has authored numerous books and articles on the relationship between media and politics, and she founded and still oversees Factcheck.org.

Politico recently ran an interview with Jamison in which she made some important distinctions–between truth and fact, and between consequential and inconsequential misinformation.

Journalism is the reporting of fact. Truth is a more fraught concept. In common with most people, Jamison says she hears the word “truth” with a capital T. The word thus capitalized tends to confirm finality: I have discovered the Truth and need not investigate further.

We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

Rather than speaking of Truth-with-a-capital-T, Jamison is more comfortable saying that “there is knowledge that is more or less certain”–what I’d call “facts on the ground.”

She also provides a clear-headed summary of the situation in which Americans currently find ourselves.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

When it comes to the distinction between information that is and is not consequential, Jamison gives a shout-out to the judiciary, noting that the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign. We aren’t without tools for determining what is knowable and what is not.

That said, Jamison’s concern is with consequential facts.

With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential.

So how do we understand what is consequential? She provides an excellent analogy:

If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court.

It all comes back to operating in a shared reality. That’s especially important to our ability to communicate, and to be contributing citizens in  a functional political system.