We’re only in the fourth month of the year, but so far local news seems to be “trending,” as the digitally savvy say.
Facebook kicked it off in January by announcing it would invest $300 million in local news efforts.
Then came Google, proclaiming it’ll also spend $300 million over three years on local news initiatives.
Not to be outdone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced recently that it too would put in $300 million over five years, with a focus on local news. The Knight family made its fortune by building a successful newspaper chain. That once-grand empire has long since been sold, broken up and decimated by Google and Facebook. More on that in a moment.
Following Facebook’s announcement, Campbell Brown, the company’s “vice president of Global News Partnerships,” wrote that after studying what people like to see in their feeds, “we heard one consistent answer: people want more local news, and local newsrooms are looking for more support.”
Local newsrooms are indeed looking for more support after enduring ever diminishing budgets and layoffs for the past 12 years. Just this past week, The Cleveland Plain Dealer announced it was laying off a third of its newsroom. Twenty years ago it had 340 journalists. It is now down to 33 — for a city the size of Cleveland. It’s like promising to clear snow from the streets with just one plow and three guys with shovels.
The source of most news begins with newspapers. Yes, local TV stations and public radio carry small reporting staffs that turn out their own stories. But day-in-day-out, local news begins on the pages of newspapers. Who covers those nighttime school board meetings? Asks questions about tax rates? Takes pictures at high school football games? Compiles the obituaries? Journalists.
But it takes money. The life-blood of newspapers is advertising revenue. We have printed on the wall in our advertising department, “Advertising makes possible the free press.” Without that money, newspapers simply can’t provide the important journalism upon which communities rely.
I’ve written many times about how the internet has affected newspapers the last dozen years. I won’t belabor it except to offer this fact: Today, Google and Facebook together haul in $3 of every $4 spent on online advertising.
Since advertisers globally have migrated budgets into digital marketing, you see the problem. The newspaper industry’s revenue has dropped from $49 billion in 2006 to about $16 billion last year.
“Without revenue, you can’t pay reporters. Without reporters, you can’t develop consistently reliable news reports about what’s happening in your town,” said Alberto Ibargüen, the Knight Foundation president. “Without that reliable news report, you can’t figure out how to run local government. It isn’t rocket science.”
Now, $900 million is a lot of money — assuming the spend actually matches the press release. Where will it go? We can expect plenty of strings and plenty of strategies that ultimately benefit the benefactors.
Having stripped local news of much of its revenue, Google and Facebook are now bemoaning that we don’t have enough local news. That’s like the fox, with feathers in its whiskers, whining over the lack of chickens in the barnyard.
Facebook is not sending reporters to school board meetings to write stories about redistricting. Google is not compiling a community’s obituaries. Instagram is not staffing photographers at Monday evening high school softball games. They rely on local newspapers to share these labors — for free. Without local newspapers, these “platforms” lack content to keep you scrolling.
Circle this past March 26 on your calendar as perhaps the day this all came together. Two highly regarded magazines — The New Yorker and Scientific American — each unknowingly printed stories that highlight what’s becoming of us in an age of dwindling newspapers and local news.
The New Yorker piece — “Shrinking Newspapers and the Costs of Environmental Reporting in Coal Country” — depicts the lack of investigative reporting and its impact. The story in Scientific American — “Why Losing Our Newspapers Is Breaking Our Politics” — posits that without local news to read, people are instead consuming more national news reflective of their political beliefs, thus making us more shrill, partisan and less accepting of compromise.
“If people want to fight back against the polarization that has infected our politics,” authors Matthew P. Hitt, Joshua Darr, Johanna Dunaway conclude, “part of the answer may be on their doorstep.”
The Pilot has covered Moore County’s local news for 99 years, and we do so in a fashion that an ever-decreasing number of communities experience these days. We are not immune to the pressures of our industry, but neither are we treading passively, waiting for the wave to crash over us.
We’ve just bought a new arts and culture magazine, SouthPark in Charlotte. We are about to launch a new email newsletter division. We continue to produce award-winning work and powerful journalism like last Sunday’s 10th anniversary remembrance of the Pinelake mass shooting. And no one will tell you about school redistricting or tax matters or high school sports like The Pilot.
But I don’t have to convince you; you’re reading The Pilot. But I do need to convince you to go out and convince someone else to support local news — before it really is too late.
I don’t want to be trending. I want to be trendy.