“From our very beginnings as a nation, newspapers have played a vital role in building community.” With that line, the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media opens its report on what it calls the “expanding news desert.”
According to the report, 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United State since 2004. “Most ventures, however, are clustered around major metro areas,” the report continued. “As a result between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no news coverage at all.”
For 1,300 communities in the United States, gone are the records of the achievements of their youth, gone is their community’s historical record, gone is their voice in the conversation of the times and gone is the relevance of that community. Rural communities are most at risk with 500 of those newspapers being from small communities that will not have the ability to fill that void with a digital media alternative. In fact, many rural communities lack the broadband needed to stream video or deliver online news.
What is of particular concern is that, for the bulk of the population, this information collapse has gone almost unnoticed. That amorphous entity known as a consumer now receives their news over mobile social networks and has not noticed the demise of local news, or has dismissed the loss as trivial. The problem with that, of course, is that local news is where communities with very different concerns discuss their own issues while retaining their identity as part of a larger republic.
If Starbucks goes out of business tomorrow, consumers can just buy a cup of coffee elsewhere. If local news media goes out of business, democracy goes with it.
To add to the frustration, there are now over 1,300 communities in the United States in which we have no idea what is happening. Very little information going in, no information coming out.
The disruption has extended beyond information. Small towns that once had thriving downtown commercial districts have been turned into ghost towns. Walmart is now the largest employer in 22 states and has been for a few years. In fact, Walmart is the largest single private employer in the United States, with Amazon coming in at a close second. Even larger cities are impacted as luxury retailers see their storefronts become showrooms for Amazon. Small business ownership continues to trend downward. Given that local newspapers, radio and television stations were also the advertising medium of choice for local businesses, the relationship between local media and local commerce has always been a close one.
In fact, local media were the first social network. Local media told readers who was having a sale, hiring workers, selling their house, getting married, who was born, who died and much more.
To lose information in an age defined by information is an irony bordering on criminal. Since local media produce most of the content being circulated on social networks, there is no reason for them to be losing money, except that they are being robbed.
Traditional media confused their product (news and information) with their medium (television, printed paper), and media executives were loathe to abandon “analog dollars” for “digital pennies” with suicidal hubris.
The public, faced with a wide variety of specialized media content, chose the path of least effort required and have been consuming the information equivalent of a junk food diet for over two decades.
Social networks, with no content of their own, began to traffic news content extracted from local media, and social network users began to share news content, but without ever paying for it.
It is pure irony that on the same day that McClatchy newspapers, a venerable publishing chain founded in 1857, lost 82% of its value in the stock market, a startup news aggregator that does not write any of the articles it traffics received a $92 million investment on a $1.2 billion valuation.
Journalism thrives in an atmosphere of dialogue and competition. The press — as the Fourth Estate, the watchdog of the other three (government, the church and the military) — benefited from its own ruthless self-criticism and commercial competition to keep itself in check. One journalist could always be counted on to fact-check or contradict another journalist. You could always find healthy discourse and debate with a hometown point of view. Some journalists acquired legendary status.
Young people looked up to and hoped to someday grow up to be reporters. Clark Kent was not envisioned as a corporate lawyer, a musician or a professional athlete; Superman is a journalist. H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and Lewis Katz allowed the Philadelphia Inquirer to remain in business, but now as a nonprofit. Their effort should be applauded; thanks to them, the Philadelphia Inquirer will continue to serve its community, without being beholden to anybody but the public. There’s just one thing, though. Most nonprofit news organizations are and will be dependent on the generosity of donors, who may wish to drive one or another particular agenda.
Local journalism should remain independent, in both social and financial terms, immune to the winds of politics or the influence of donors and benefactors, fact-checking itself in a perpetual debate. Small children should still aspire to someday be journalists — just like Superman.