Since the birth of the Word Wide Web in March 1989 (at 00:00PT/ 08:00 CET) and the rise of Facebook and the like, the preferred business model of newspaper has been in steep decline as advertising revenue shifted from print media towards the Internet with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are the largest winners. This meant that many newspapers are under severe financial stress while others have closed up shop all together. American readers are faced with a tremendous decline of printed newspapers. Perhaps the decline of local newspapers started even earlier than the arrival of Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc.
It may have started when local papers began to replace trained and experienced journalists with recently graduated MBAs who had only limited knowledge of local affairs to run newspapers, writes PEN’s Ayad Akhtar. How far the degeneration of American papers is illustrated by Pulitzer Price winner Akhtar, Since 2014, nearly 1,800 newspapers have closed while TV and radio stations continue to see widespread consolidation. Consolidation is the code-word for monopolisation, a tendency in capitalism detected by Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century and explained in Das Kapital (1867).
The decline of local newspapers also means that fraudulent news is spreading. It happens in the echo-chambers of Facebook and elsewhere as the mass-extinction event of print media continues. It also means that poorer communities and communities of colour suffer the most. Perhaps for too long, the viewing of local news as a public good has not determined our perspective on news.
This is despite the fact that 67% of Americans trust their local TV news while 73% report that they trust their local newspaper. Interestingly, there is a direct link between the reporting of local news and cost. When local journalism disappears, government cost increases. In other words, each dollar spent on investigative journalism generates hundred of dollars in benefit to society.
It was, for example, The Desert Sun’s exposure, in 2018, of the Nestlé Company’s illegal access to water resources in San Bernardino, CA, for nearly 20 years that started the ball rolling. The decline of a local press is also associated with a corresponding decline in the competitiveness of local mayoral elections – fewer candidates will run. Beyond that, the closure of local newspapers is associated with greater political polarisation. Many people read – and believe – what they find on Facebook.
Some local newspapers have been failing to provide aggressive accountability coverage for a long time, especially in rural communities. This is not surprising when local newspapers depend on advertising revenue paid by, for example, the biggest employer in town. Perhaps the often cited separation between the newsroom and the marketing department has always been a bit of a myth. Cash-strapped newspaper tend to replace journalism with PR press releases even more than financially viable newspaper already do.
In a United States still unable to deal with the discrepancy between a popular vote and a vote through the Electoral College, where who you vote for matters less than where you vote, the susceptibility to technical discrepancies and social inequalities is vital. Not all US citizens get to vote in presidential elections, such people living in Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the American Virgin Islands. In addition, recent reapportionment of the number of Representatives to the House and therefore of Electoral College votes, has seen larger states, such as New York, lose out, while others have gained, such as Florida and Arizona.
The tendency to relay on ready-made corporate press releases will only increase given the fact that 47% of news staff has been eliminated since 2004. Perhaps one of the biggest enemies of local news is not even corporate PR but Facebook – the medium of 2.5 billion people, many are young. Meanwhile, 81% of Americans over 65 turn on the TV for news by contrast only 16% of Americans between 18 and 29 report getting their news from TV. While this might be bad news for Murdoch’s FOX network and other conservative media moguls, it might also be bad news for democracy. Overall, Google and Facebook’s algorithms have prioritised click-bait over news, the sensational over the informative.
In addition to these challenges, more than half of all US newspapers have changed ownership in the past decade which is perhaps an indication of an industry in severe retreat. The overall deterioration has also let to ghost newspaper these are papers whose reporting staffs are so significantly reduced that they can no longer provide much of the breaking news or public service journalism. They are an easy target for the aforementioned corporate PR press release. Worse, of the surviving 7,200 newspapers in the United States, at least a thousand qualify as ghost newspapers.
It does not get better when considering that Sinclair Broadcasting Group that reaches 40% of US homes. Its chairman, David Smith, has publicly announced to the Trump Administration, We are here to deliver your message. Meanwhile, at Murdoch’s FOX, journalists follow the order from above. Despite Trump getting only 63 million compared to Clinton’s 65.9 million, the Republicans were able to top the vote in the Electoral College. This shows that it is not the total number of ballots won that counts, but the spread of votes in key states. Putting aside the interference by Russia, the main factor in the election was where non-college-educated white males gained their news to form political opinions. Trump gained a relatively high rural vote precisely in the areas most deeply impacted by the decline of small, local and independent newspapers.
Today local papers operate on shoestring budgets compared to what used to be a whole boot. They are the disappearing heart of rural and small-town America. Meanwhile there are five major US newspapers that seem to have survived the digital revolution: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times. Those big-city national papers are mostly unread by people living in rural areas and lower middle-class suburbs. Trump calls these big five, especially The New York Times, a failed press, and labels them enemies of the people.
But while they have declined in circulation in the last two decades, they have nevertheless benefitted from the deep resources their new owners have invested to stem the tide of layoffs. These are also newspaper that might still deserve the title watchdog journalism, to some extent at least. The big five can afford top-notch journalists and serve an educated national audience, The decline continues, however, with many major American cities having only one daily newspaper, a monopoly on local news.
There might be a number of solutions. These are expanding philanthropic giving, impact investment, reorienting the FOC (Federal Communications Commission), protecting journalism, limiting consolidation, strengthening public interest programming, addressing the destabilising impact of tech giants (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, etc.), taxing digital ad revenue, expanding public funding, government support for media, and a congressional commission on public support for local news.
Overall, this is a rather grim assessment of local newspapers and local news media (TV and radio) in general in the USA. If anything and given the monopolistic behaviour of Facebook (almost 3.0 billion users worldwide), its domineering power, its polarising if not manipulative impact, the future is not looking good for local news.
The PEN report is free to download.