The good news is that, in ways big and small, dedicated local reporters are experimenting with methods to revive real journalism.
I live in a city with a hedge-fund-driven, corporate-run daily newspaper (Gannett Co. owns the Austin American-Statesman), and in my travels I’ve read dozens of similar outlets and talked to their readers. It’s always the same story: Money managers have reduced most local newspapers to mere remnants of real journalism. They have slashed reporting staff and outsourced even the editing, layout, printing and other basic production work to remote, centralized hubs. Thus, most of the flavor and timeliness of the “local” paper is lost, replaced by chopped-up national material, two-day-old sports stories, product promotions and other filler.
One especially revealing measure of hedge-fund journalism’s commitment to its dual responsibility of informing the public and inspiring civic action is their failure to report on themselves. Their takeovers are done in the dark. BANG! Suddenly your local news is controlled by distant profit-seekers who’ve never been to your town. What deal was struck? By whom? At what price? To whom do they answer? What say will you have in their coverage? These are basic questions that any investigative reporter worth their salt would ask of any transaction of such consequence to the community. But local reporters, mayors, community groups, et al., are not even given the names of — much less access to — the financial chieftains who secretly directed the buyout, control operations and pocket the profits. The most taboo topic in corporate journalism is corporate ownership.
The damage caused by impatient hedge fund speculators is especially harsh for small cities and rural areas. Forget the demand for profits north of 20%; even a 10% return is a stretch in markets with fewer than 100,000 people. So, with no personal ties to these communities and even less commitment to the civic mission of local journalism, the predators often just cash out the physical assets, pull the plug and skip town.
Thus, hundreds of smaller papers have been shuttered in the last decade — some 300 in the last two years alone — and this winnowing has created “news deserts” (counties with no local news outlets at all) across large swaths of America. As for remaining corporate media, a new Pew Research Center survey found that 57% of folks in rural areas say that their “local” news media mostly cover some other area.
The good news is that, in ways big and small, dedicated local reporters are experimenting with funding, structures, staffing, etc., to produce the news that democracy requires and revive real journalism.
- Foundations are seeding local projects and journalist positions. Take, for example, the Local News Lab — a project of the Democracy Fund. The Lab reports on the many new “experiments in journalism” and provides resources for anyone who wants to get started. LocalNewsLab.org
- LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News) — with more than 275 members — provides resources and community to independent news entrepreneurs as they try to build sustainable local businesses. LionPublishers.com
- The Institute for Nonprofit News connects more than 300 independent news organizations dedicated to the radical proposition that “everyone deserves access to trustworthy sources of news.” inn.org
- Assorted community media consortiums in several states and cities gather local news outlets and grassroots groups to share business strategies, fundraising, staff training, tech info, story ideas, etc. These include the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (more than 40 news sources), Colorado Community Media Project (24 local papers) and New Jersey Civic Info Consortium (state-funded support for a network of local news).
- Unionization is sweeping into dozens of hedge fund papers, so journalists themselves gain clout to report on and unify against corporate cuts, banality and plundering.
- More city governments are mandating that a fair portion of their advertising budgets go to local community publications, rather than remote chains.
These and so many more examples are glimmers of real journalistic hope across our land. Committed community journalists are determined democracy fighters, butting their heads against the money wall to bang out honest news for local residents, not windfalls for profiteers. Instead of bemoaning the decline of the free press, let’s join with these gutsy journalists and activists who’re actually working to “free” it!