Robert W. McChesney is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. John Nichols writes for The Nation and the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin. They have written several books on media and politics. Together they cofounded Free Press with Josh Silver and Kimberly Longey in 2003.
Why emphasize local news media, rather than national news media? The reason is simple: Powerful local news media are the prerequisite for viable national news media. When American national news media were at their strongest, say in the mid-20th century, the driving force was local news media that covered national politics on their own. It is not enough to maintain a trio of competing cable TV networks that feature commentators pontificating in predictable ways on a handful of stories, along with a narrow spectrum of billionaire-sustained national newspapers. A genuine counterbalance to today’s propagandistic clamor of many private and selfish interests requires journalism at the regional and local levels of a vast country where one-size-fits-all reports from Washington and New York will never be sufficient to counter an increasingly sophisticated and targeted spew of misinformation. National journalism requires a foundation of local journalism not merely to flourish, but to exist.
Unless the collapse of local journalism is addressed directly and successfully, it is impossible to see how the threat of a more authoritarian, even fascistic, future can be subdued — or, put another way, how functional self-government and the rule of law can survive. Accordingly, this is a political problem that must be addressed and solved. That resolution must come quickly, before the challenge of answering all the other urgent calls for action — to address racism, xenophobia, political corruption, economic inequality, militarism and a scorching climate crisis — becomes so overwhelming that people lose faith in the functionality or usefulness of democracy.
This is a global crisis, too, both for the survival of journalism and democracy. In its 2021 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House surveyed democratic and human rights activists in more than 100 countries to ask them what measures were needed to arrest and reverse the decline of democracy in their nations over the past 15 years. Freedom House noted that “providing the public with access to fact-based information was a top response,” which the report concluded meant requiring democratic governments to commit to build a viable, independent news media.
How severe is the collapse of local news media?
The collapse of local journalism in the United States has its roots in the patterns of media consolidation that emerged in the final few decades of the 20th Century, and then exploded with the emergence of the Internet and social media in the first two decades of the 21st Century. It is now in its final stages, standing at the edge of the abyss after the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that extended from it. Most communities in the United States are now at the point where there are virtually no paid journalists in competing newsrooms covering governance in a manner that is sufficient to sustain vibrant democratic institutions. Only in a handful of metropolitan areas does a semblance of semi-sufficient journalism remain, and it is invariably carried on by rapidly shrinking newsrooms that openly admit they are struggling to survive. In many communities there are no paid reporters or newsrooms whatsoever. There were virtually no “news deserts” a generation ago, or at any other time in American history; now they blanket the country.
It is vital to consider newspaper revenue in explaining the crisis of local journalism. We understand that not all newspaper revenue goes to pay for journalism, but this is the source from which funding for the preponderance of local journalism flows. If the well dries up, journalism shrinks and then disappears at the local level.
In the immediate postwar decades, and, from what we can determine, for most of American history, the United States devoted around 1 percent of its GDP to daily newspapers. From the late 1960s through the 1990s, after a wave of newspaper and media consolidation, daily newspapers accounted for around three-quarters of 1 percent of GDP. As anyone who lived through that era can testify, no one was bellyaching during these decades that there was “too much” local journalism. It was during this period that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ben Bagdikian published and regularly updated his groundbreaking book, The Media Monopoly, which warned the accelerating consolidation of corporate ownership of news organizations was undermining journalism at all levels, and especially locally.
The collapse accelerated through the 1990s and early 2000s, and the bottom fell out with the emergence of social media 15 years ago.
The pandemic has only accelerated the process. Jon Schleuss, the veteran journalist who heads the NewsGuild-CWA union, characterized COVID-19 as an “Extinction Level Event” for what remains of American journalism, and for every institution that relies upon journalism.11 All signs point to the percentage of GDP accounted for by local newspaper revenues will be at an all-time historic low in 2021. Based on the trend line, it is unimaginable that the pattern of job losses in existing newsrooms will abate, not to mention reverse, unless we adopt a bold new system.
The issue goes far beyond just the concern about citizens getting the information necessary to monitor and participate in governance. “We know what happens when a community loses its newspaper,” Elaine Godfrey, a journalist who has studied the issue in Burlington, Iowa, recently wrote in The Atlantic. “People tend to participate less often in municipal elections, and those elections are less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, and costs sometimes go up for town governments. Disinformation becomes the norm, as people start to get their facts mainly from social media.”12 And as has been well-documented, the collapse of local journalism does grave damage to the vitality of local economies.
But, as Godfrey writes, the elimination of local journalism also reveals “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.
As Americans increasingly lose their connection and attachment to their neighbors, and their communities, they become isolated, depressed, and defenseless, making themselves easier prey for propagandists.
What caused the collapse and will the system ever recover?
Advertising, which provided from 60-to-100 percent of the revenues for local newspapers, has abandoned journalism. Advertisers, including classified advertisers, were never wed to bankrolling newspapers or journalism; it was simply the price they had to pay to reach their target audience. With the Internet’s mindboggling surveillance capacity, advertisers have found far more efficient, effective and less expensive ways to market their products and services online. The traditional means of placing an ad in a specific medium is passé. Advertisers can now pay firms like Google or Facebook to locate potential members of their target audience wherever they may be online, specific websites be damned. They have eliminated all the “waste” in traditional advertising when money was spent advertising to people who would never buy your product. This explains why online news sites are in the same boat as traditional newspapers when it comes to getting advertising support. They get, at best, pennies on the dollar compared to the glory days of the 20th century.
As advertising declined, newspapers decreased in size and value, and consumer demand understandably plummeted, accelerating the departure of advertisers and consumers. It bears repeating that this is about more than the print paper, however; even on the most dazzling local news website, it is difficult to keep readers from noticing the dearth of fresh, original and relevant content. The shift is now nearly complete, and it means that it is all but impossible to make a profit in local journalism today. “Just at the time that we need an independent, credible journalism — a free press — the business model is being undermined,” said Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate economist and professor at Columbia University.
After two decades of having investors, tech innovators, desperate journalists, consultants, foundations, and billionaires experiment with every possible notion to create a commercially viable local news media, the verdict is in: Nothing has come remotely close to providing the foundation for the broad-based local journalism that is required to sustain the civic discourse in American cities and towns, let alone the effective democratic governance that is supposed to extend from that discourse. The market has failed, and technology has exacerbated, not solved, the problem of local journalism.
If the United States does not act soon, it will lose an entire generation of journalists who understand how to do journalism and recognize its manifold importance, along with succeeding generations that are prepared to uncover the facts that people need to know in order to be their own governors. This will be uncharted territory not just for American journalism but for American democracy.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this morass. There are solutions that grow directly out of the U.S. Constitution and America’s magnificent and underappreciated historical record of sustaining journalism.
Image via Getty