Tag Archives: local newspapers

Fact, Analysis, Opinion

I’ve repeatedly used this platform to complain about the deficits of what have been called “ghost” newspapers, like the remnants of our local Indianapolis Star. Unlike the 2000+ papers that have simply disappeared over the past several years, ghost papers still exist, but in a form that is no longer adequate to the needs of the community. Here in Indianapolis, the Star (never a particularly good newspaper) no longer bothers to inform the public about the various agencies of local or state government; it devotes its reduced reporting resources mainly to sports and entertainment, with occasional forays into “human interest” stories. As a result, significantly fewer people look to the Star as a common source of information for residents of central Indiana.

(I’m happy to note that the Star’s deficiency has sparked creation of a new nonprofit covering the Statehouse: the Indiana Capital Chronicle. May they prosper!)

The loss of local newspapers hasn’t just deprived us of local news. It has also deprived us of analyses of that news, columns and letters to the editor expressing a variety of opinions over the meaning and significance of the matters being conveyed.

The Star is a Gannett paper (which explains a lot about its sorry state), and it turns out that Gannett isn’t simply uninterested in providing local communities with needed information.A reader recently sent me a column (snatched from behind a paywall) outlining Gannett’s recent decision to minimize inclusion of analysis and opinion.

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, recently recommended changes to its affiliates’ opinion pages. There will be fewer syndicated columnists and letters to the editor and no more editorials that, in Gannett’s words, “tell voters what to think.” Gannett’s directive noted that editorials and opinion columns are among the most frequent reasons that readers give for canceling their subscriptions, and many of the chain’s opinion pages across the country are poised to cut back production or fold up shop in response.

It is certainly the case that devoting editorial pages to opinions focused on national events adds to our current American polarization. But as the writer noted, space devoted to opinions on local matters has the opposite effect–it brings readers’ attention back to the local community and strengthens local connections. He insists–I believe correctly–that Gannett and other newspaper owners should “reinvest in what makes an opinion page work: amplifying local voices, presenting a diverse array of opinions in a respectful way, and serving as their community’s public forum.”

A local newspaper’s main advantage in today’s sprawling media marketplace is its geographic focus: Nobody covers a community as thoroughly as its newspaper, even today. The opinion page is an essential part of that coverage because it seeks out and organizes a diverse array of community perspectives. It is the least “professional” part of the newspaper: a place where you can learn about the issues facing neighbors, community leaders, and elected officials in their own words. Unlike the neighborhood Facebook and NextDoor groups that so often fill in local news deserts, where the brashest and most extreme voices rise to the top, an opinion page is edited according to journalistic ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, and fact-checking.

Opinion columns and vetted letters to the editor aren’t the sort of “opinions” that litter Facebook and Twitter–posts that are all too often little more than insults and/or invective.

Good opinion writing is analytical–it is based upon the factual reporting, but goes beyond the surface to explore the significance of the reported facts and opine about their likely meaning and possible consequences. Opinion writers almost always come with a bias or point of view, and good opinion writers are explicit about their ideological commitments, but they also come with background in the subject-matter that allows them to illuminate what the bare recitation of “who what where when and why” cannot.

There’s a reason they are sometimes called “think pieces.”

The author of the column from which I’ve pulled these quotes–a journalism professor–points out that effective columnists are trained in the art of observation. And as he says, a talent for connecting storytelling with current events makes an impression on readers that the bare recitation of facts usually doesn’t.

Studies show that op-eds can have enduring persuasive effects — a rare finding in studies of the media — and can set the political agenda for citizens and elected officials alike. Local columnists can use their reputation and intellectual freedom to explore deep, complex, and oft-ignored community histories or serve as respected watchdogs to protect consumers and citizens.

The evisceration or outright loss of local newspapers over the past couple of decades has deprived us of a critically important asset–a forum informing us about our local government, business and community–and now, of informed opinion probing their significance.

 

 

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….

 

The Journalism We Need

Yesterday”s post was about the conundrum posed by social media sites. But social media isn’t journalism–and even when it focuses on news items, it is no substitute for journalism.

The First Amendment protects freedom of the press for obvious reasons. When citizens are uninformed about their government, they are unable to ensure that it is acting appropriately, meeting its responsibilities. They are unable to cast informed votes.

The Internet and social media have dramatically changed the way in which citizens get their information, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the avalanche of news, spin, propaganda and conspiracy theories that populate today’s media. The ability to “choose one’s news”—to indulge our very human confirmation bias—has had an enormous (and I would argue negative) effect upon American governance.

An article from Resilience–an aggregator website–is instructive.The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of the “journalism of verification.”

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important than presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information  compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. The result is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

The problem is most acute at the local level.

What we lose when we lose newspapers that practiced the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government. Civic engagement and especially local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out. Studies of cities that have lost their newspapers confirm that the loss is followed by diminished civic and political activity. It also leads to higher costs of borrowing, because those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

Emerging data shows that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing have significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races, as well as lower voter turnout. Newspaper closures have been linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go.

When I taught my class in Media and Public Affairs five or six years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?” Those lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.

Reviving Real News

The reports of local journalism’s demise are coming fast and furious.

The Guardian recently reported on the emergence of a conservative “news” ecosystem devoted to spreading rightwing propaganda.The article told how one “fake news” source opposed a school referendum in an Illinois town.

The referendum was hotly contested – an organized, enthused Vote Yes campaign was pushing hard for people to back the vote. It looked like the referendum might deliver a yes verdict.

Enter Locality Labs, a shadowy, controversial company that purports to be a local news organization, but is facing increasing criticism as being part of a nationwide rightwing lobbying effort masquerading as journalism.

The company, with two other linked organizations, was responsible for the Hinsdale School News, a print newspaper that was distributed around Hinsdale voters. The paper had the Hinsdale high school district logo, and the look of a journalistic organization. But, as the Hinsdalean reported, the “newspaper” was stuffed full of articles, mostly byline-free, which had a distinct anti-referendum skew….

Locality Labs operates scores of sites across Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, often sharing content. In Michigan alone, the Lansing State Journal reported, almost 40 sites opened in one fell swoop this fall.

The effectiveness of what is essentially a national “disinformation campaign” is amplified enormously by what columnist Margaret Sullivan has called “The  death knell for local newspapers.”

Local watchdog journalism matters: Just check the front page of the Baltimore Sun, which on Thursday carried a huge headline about the former mayor’s indictment; the Sun — even in its diminished state — broke the story in March that set those wheels in motion.

I could give you dozens of other examples from this year alone. And consider that sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein might have gotten away with most of his misdeeds if not for local journalism, particularly at the Miami Herald.

But the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.

Sullivan ticks off the reasons for her dismay: the just-completed Gannett and GateHouse merger, which threatens to further reduce newsrooms throughout the country; the fiscal woes of McClatchy, the sale of the Chicago Tribune–a sale that

“ushers the vultures into Tribune,” said a Nieman Lab analysis by Ken Doctor. The implications of all these developments are stunning, he wrote: “The old world is over, and the new one — one of ghost newspapers, news deserts, and underinformed communities — is headed straight for us.”

Sullivan reminds us that, in the past 15 years, more than 2000 newspapers have simply gone out of business, and of those that are left, far too many are “phantoms” of their former selves.  Yet we still rely on local newspapers to provide original local journalism — in many communities, more than all other news sources combined.

Sullivan then makes an incredibly important point:

One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted. In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing.

They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.

Losing that should be unthinkable. But as of this moment, it isn’t.

When we lose trusted sources of common information, we become easy prey for the propagandists and the conspiracy theorists.

Sullivan references the still-fledgling efforts of nonprofits and foundations to fill the local news gap. (Students in my Media and Public Policy class have wondered why local “do-gooders” don’t form a nonprofit to purchase and revitalize the pathetic remains of our local paper–something that, unfortunately, is highly unlikely to happen.)

The conventional wisdom among media observers is that there is no longer a viable business model for local newspapers (even those that are entirely on-line)–that the loss of advertising dollars that provided them with once-cushy profit margins, together with the dramatic decline in subscriptions, simply dooms them.

But here’s a “what if” for our “who can you trust?” age.

What if a local news source marketed itself with a twofold promise: that it would staff its newsroom with enough reporters to adequately cover its geographic area, including especially the agencies of local government; and that it would report nothing those reporters had not verified?  The reason we used to trust local newspapers was our confidence that they had actually confirmed the facts they reported. However, they rarely felt the need to point that out. In the era of “fake news,” trustworthiness needs to be an explicit part of marketing campaigns.

I have to believe that a lot of us would gladly pay for real news. And some advertisers might even see the reputational benefit of supporting actual journalism.

After all, someone is paying for the propaganda…

 

When Local Newspapers Fail

Last weekend, I was doing some research in preparation for my upcoming Media and Public Policy classes, when we would explore the role played by local newspapers in local elections.

The discussion in my class revolved around the upcoming elections in Indianapolis, where citizens will vote for the Mayor and members of the City-County Council. It has been my strong impression that the Indianapolis Star–the sole (barely) surviving daily newspaper–has given short shrift to the campaigns, and I confirmed that impression by scrolling through the archives.

My admittedly cursory review of the coverage of the last year or so also reinforced the extent to which the paper has neglected coverage of the operations of local government.  It isn’t just the electoral “horse races,” which no longer command the column inches they once did; there is virtually no information about the public policies being pursued by the Council or the administration; no coverage of local school board activities–not even articles about the occasional heated zoning battles and fights over sign ordinances that work their way up to the Metropolitan Plan Commission.

Between the annoying and intrusive advertisements that now clutter the local news section, and the even more annoying pop-up ads in its electronic version, the Star tells its declining number of subscribers  about sports, concerts and new bar and restaurant openings –and not much else.

I firmly believe that civic engagement and local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out.

I’ve previously mentioned studies of cities that have lost their newspapers; that loss has been followed by diminished civic and political activity, and higher costs of borrowing (those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.)

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

The article argues that “the loss of professional expertise in coverage of local government has negative consequences for the quality of city politics because citizens become less informed about local policies and elections.”

The data show that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing had, on average, significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races. We also find suggestive evidence that lower staffing levels are associated with lower voter turnout.

Another recent study found newspaper closures linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go. That has certainly been the case here.

When I taught this class four or five years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?”

The lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.