Community Bulwarks in Peril
“With local news in retreat, the community fabric frays.” So ran the headline for a recent New York Times story on PEN America’s thick report, “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions.”
Ominous indeed, and most definitely not good news. Not for me, and not for you in terms of tax increases and government spending rising with maybe not the best decision-making where newspapers have vanished and citizens lost touch with their communities. Even with all their Facebook and Nextdoor grapevines.
Of course, my colleagues across the country have been living this since the Great Recession cut the legs from under community papers’ golden age. Before the meltdown came the boom, and small papers like this one reached their historic heights businesswise. Little did we know.
The business of local news, especially newspapers and their online services, has sputtered as the search engines and aggregators — the Googles and the Facebooks — have taken the lion’s share of online revenues while leaving the relatively high cost of reporting to the news entities whose stories they pluck for free.
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We still get the audience, sure, more than ever overall, but the growing online readership equates to empty calories. And there are consequences.
News deserts are blistering across the country now. The local papers historically have carried the most reporting resources and effort, this base of journalism emerging ever clearer as essential for democracy and our republic. The research shows communities suffer in tangible ways without their local papers.
Twenty percent of the papers in business a decade ago are gone now, along with half the newspaper journalists. The papers — a bit of a misnomer — are also the main online news sources in most communities, and they’re well suited to the task, too. Now their newsrooms can do live reports on video, podcasts, text alerts, postings to social media, all of that.
Local online-only sites, radio and television, always much leaner in news staffing, haven’t filled the void, at least not yet, and share in the same troubles.
Meantime, advertising and marketing choices have proliferated and fragmented, and the challenges the news media face also afflict local retailers. The brick-and-mortar businesses compete with often lower-cost online entities in this new era.
They need effective marketing now more than ever, just as the choices whip into a bewildering blizzard for this backbone of communities. Their business suffers, too, when the local paper is gone.
The metropolitan papers in Reno and Sacramento are among the hardest hit. The Bee plans to eliminate Saturday print editions soon in an effort to save expense.
Community dailies in Carson City and Auburn have dropped to a couple of editions a week.
So far, we have kept to our historic six-day cycle, mindful of our neighbors as mine canaries. Thing is, here at least, we find print advertising still working very well for clients who see through the glitter. It seems to me they also are contributing to a public good. But of course I would see it like that.
The PEN America report has a number of suggestions to buttress the Fourth Estate, including greater public funding of local news media.
One idea that appeals to me, though it hasn’t worked well so far in Europe, would compel companies like Google and Facebook to pay for what they use from local news media through a licensing fee for each link, in essence an ancillary copyright or “link tax” as countries that have tried this are calling it.
This might harm smaller vultures, but they shouldn’t be siphoning revenue from our original reporting anyway.
The Scandinavian socialist democracies subsidize their press directly even as their regimes are reported on critically. State-funded news media in some other countries — Russia, China, Iran … — are far less bold, let’s say.
The advertiser/subscriber model has its ethical pinch points, for sure, just as state-supported media and non-profit philanthropy do.
But for all local news media’s real and imagined flaws — all the criticism from armchair journalists who would do each story their way, mainly skipping that pesky, time-consuming reporting part — the alternative leads directly to a more expensive, worse run, less healthy America.
Something will emerge from whatever ashes remain from today’s means of funding journalism. There’s just too much interest in actual news to go without for long. And more subtly, there’s too much at stake.
Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, The Wildwood Independent and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 477-4299.
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