No News Is Bad News
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COVID-19 is a global pandemic and a local story, but after years of newspaper closures and layoffs, vast swaths of this country have no local news to speak of.
NEWS REPORT And the presses shuddered to a halt this morning at Missoula's Weekly Independent...
NEWS REPORT This week, the publisher of The Herald wrote a letter to readers saying unprecedented challenges are for…[END CLIP]
PENNY ABERNATHY Marginalized communities that need that kind of everyday information, they've lost that vital link to our society and to our democracy.
JEFF JARVIS God did not give newspapers and magazines the revenue that they think Google and Facebook took from them.
RACHEL DISSELL If the Starbucks had given away coffees for free and then started wanting to charge $5, people would have gone nuts.
STEVE WALDMAN Our solution is really basic. Just be there, tell their stories and we find that that is working.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The death and perhaps new life of local news coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. We were having trouble with the lede for this episode, which is devoted to the state of local news, especially newspapers. We emphatically did not want to start any sentence with, “In a time when…” or end one with, “now more than ever.” But here we are in a time when now more than ever. I mean, you know that journalism is historically seen as democracy's bedrock because it informs the electorate. And you may know that the local news consumption is correlated with higher community engagement and voting rates. You're aware that local reporting serves as the watchdog on corruption in and out of the statehouse, malfeasance and inefficiency that costs taxpayers money. But according to polls, you probably aren't aware that the local paper in your area, assuming you still have one, is quite likely mortally imperiled — more at risk than any senior citizen with a preexisting condition. In fact, that's a pretty good analogy.
BOB GARFIELD You almost certainly didn't know that epidemiologists rely on local news and especially local papers because they're accessible and well archived to identify and track outbreaks. Now disease detectives, absent much of such content, complain they are often flying blind. Look online and you'd think the newspaper business is thriving. A zillion stories from all over creation on your news aggregator, Facebook, Twitter, buzzing your phone. But that's a mirage. The output of a handful of stable national news outlets. The tragic reality is that hundreds of counties lack even the most basic coverage of local, county and state government, not to mention the courts, culture, business or public health. Many regions are now news desert, where nobody, literally nobody is minding the news store.
Penny Abernathy is the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, where a comprehensive survey of American news capacity revealed a catastrophe well underway. Penny, welcome to On the Media.
PENNY ABERNATHY Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Where are the absolute news deserts, the places barren of all journalism?
PENNY ABERNATHY It tends to have occurred more frequently in the cycles, in large part because that's where we have many of the economically struggling counties and unfortunately marginalized communities that need that kind of everyday information. They've lost that vital link to our society and to our democracy.
BOB GARFIELD A lot has been written about how investigative reporting just can't be sustained. But is it the paucity of seven-part series on corruption that's most threatening to the democracy versus just, you know, somebody routinely covering the school board?
PENNY ABERNATHY We lose transparency at the very local level when we don't have someone showing up to cover routine government meetings. And there's been recent research that shows when you lose on newspaper, citizens in a town tend to end up paying more in taxes because there's just no one reporting on the local bond issue. The second thing we're losing is the watchdog function, which expose corruption of both government and business executives and officials.
BOB GARFIELD I’m thinking of the case of Bell, California, about 10 years ago, where the town council fleeced the citizens of millions and millions of dollars, largely in public meetings attended by no press. Are there other examples of that kind of when the cat's away, the mice will play conduct by local governments?
PENNY ABERNATHY I live in the Ninth Congressional District in North Carolina. The residents here were more than a year late getting a representative because of election fraud, and it went uncovered and unnoticed because there was no reporter, editor of the local papers there or at the regional papers covering that issue. I have talked to county and city communicators in North Carolina, and all of them have expressed concern about what their role is when they see a local government go into closed door session when they shouldn't be and there's no reporter there to explain to them what the law is about open meetings. They've also expressed concern about what happens when they see examples of what could potentially be corruption and as a person who is supposed to be getting the information out, what is their role in exposing that? So it puts all of us in a kind of awkward position if we don't have someone who's been trained as a reporter knowing what is expected of elected officials as well as government agencies, to be able to say, we have a right to see this. We have a right to inform our citizens about this so they can make informed judgments.
BOB GARFIELD There are unseen losses of capacity as well in the days of 30 and 40 percent profit margins, publishers could afford to report without fear or favor. And if they found themselves being challenged over a subpoena or a libel action or a need to litigate over a freedom of information request, whatever, they could afford that. I expect the number of news organizations in the United States still able to do that is in the neighborhood of maybe 20. What is the effect when publishers lack the resources to charge ahead come what may?
PENNY ABERNATHY Yes, one example. Here in North Carolina, we have a small twice weekly paper published down in a very poor county. The paper won a Pulitzer, a public service medal back in the 1950s for taking on the KKK. It took two years of courageous reporting to bring in the law enforcement officials that were needed and to shine the spotlight on the corruption that was going on in that small county. It almost bankrupted the newspaper, and I had that publisher tell me most recently that the difference between operating at a 20 percent profit margin and operating in the low single digits was that he had to think twice about every story that might require legal action.
BOB GARFIELD Look, you know, every news employee in the world knows what's going on out there, but are there data that get to how well the public understands what it has lost already and what more it stands to lose and what the risk is to democracy. Considering the plummeting levels of trust for the media, do they even care?
PENNY ABERNATHY One of the things that has concerned me over the last five years that I've been researching and documenting the rise of news desks is just the lack of public awareness of the problem. Pew did a survey last year that showed that 75 percent of the people they surveyed were totally unaware of the financial problems going on at the local newspaper or news organization. Even though 50 percent of them had noticed there was a loss of local news in whatever outlet they were turning to for their local news, there's been a huge disconnect also too and a willingness to pay for the news, especially in the digital age. Only 15 percent of those surveyed by Pew said that they had subscribed to something in the past year. On the other hand, Gallup has done surveys for the Knight Commission on Trust in Media and Democracy that found that people still have a higher degree of trust in local media than they do in national media and that is at least a building block to start on. I think people have become aware once again of how important local news is.
BOB GARFIELD Are we going to make it?
PENNY ABERNATHY We are, but we've depended on one type of business model to support local news for 200 years. And we have got to be open and flexible to thinking about a variety of business models that will suit the various communities that need them. That's gonna be a for profit for some, it can be a combination for profit nonprofit for others, it may be nonprofit for yet others and it may involve some kind of increased public funding. Because if not, we risk having a nation that is divided between those that are digitally connected and those that aren't digitally connected, because many of these economically struggling communities do not have residents connected to this information slash digital age.
BOB GARFIELD Thank you very much.
PENNY ABERNATHY You're quite welcome. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Penny Abernathy is the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, Bob offers a primer on how we got here.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. When Penny Abernathy speaks of a new business models, she might as well be saying a new epoch. Till now, the history of media economics has consisted of three of those. The current one began in 1994 with the first online banner ad. We Are Right Now in year 26 of that historical period. The first epoch began in 1605 with a German language periodical with the zingy name, Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien. This and the Curanto newspapers about faraway places that flourished in Europe were financed entirely by subscriptions and so it was for a century. Then there was the dear departed, but very lengthy middle epoch counted from the placement for the first newspaper ad for an Oyster Bay, Long Island estate in a 1704 issue of the Boston News Letter. That period lasted two hundred ninety years, and it was a really good two hundred ninety years for newspapers, magazines, radio and television, which is to say the entire mass media universe. Cynthia B. Myers is author of A Word from Our Sponsor.
CYNTHIA B. MYERS I would say every form of popular culture on broadcasting, specifically from the 30s through the 60s, only existed because an advertiser chose to finance it.
BOB GARFIELD Not to dismiss the spiritual, moral and environmental costs of the consumer society. But brands and their advertising have in a very real way, been benefactors of our culture from the sublime...
Right now and again in the second half of our show, ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD To the ridiculous.
A horse is a horse, of course. Of course. And no one can talk to a horse. Of course. That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Sure much ad supported content was in the immortal words of former FCC chairman Newton Minow, a vast wasteland. But dotting the wasteland on TV and the whole media horizon was many a lush oasis, including the entire modern era of journalism. We don't know what might have happened without an advertising market, but we do know it's subsidized John Hersey’s Hiroshima in the August 31st 1946 issue of The New Yorker. It subsidized Woodward and Bernstein, and it's subsidized everything any living person ever knew about the Berks County, Pennsylvania, Board of Commissioners. Cynthia Meyers.
CYNTHIA B. MYERS I think it is fair to say that advertising has been incredibly important and significant underwriter of news for a couple hundred years, and it's difficult for me to imagine it not continuing to do so.
BOB GARFIELD Unfortunately, in recent years, no imagination is needed.
NEWS REPORT The Bay Area News Group, which consists of the Mercury News and East Bay Times, announced furloughs and layoffs today, citing a decline in advertising.
NEWS REPORT The pages turn for what is a Sacramento area staple McClatchy, the company that owns The Bee, filed for bankruptcy Thursday.
NEWS REPORT This week, the publisher of The Herald wrote a letter to readers saying unprecedented challenges are forcing changes. Revenue is down more than 30 percent that's forced the paper to suspend its sports and feature sections. 98 of the company's 375 employees have been furloughed or had their hours cut back. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The advertising economy that's propped up the whole shootin match for three centuries has, in fact, turned its attention elsewhere. Thanks a lot, Internet.
NEWS REPORT Just what is this main artery of the information superhighway?
NEWS REPORT Every business, no matter how large, no matter how small, will be on the Internet in the year 2000, It’s the primary way that people will lock up information, it will replace the Yellow Pages. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Oh there are other structural problems bedeviling the news industry recession, massive debt and widespread public distrust, for instance. But unquestionably, it is the digital revolution that caused blood to flow in the gutters of the media economy and the newspaper business most of all. Ad revenue peaked in 2005 at 49.4 billion dollars. In 2018, it was 14.3 billion dollars. That's $35 billion dollars, seventy percent just disappeared. Which is the principal reason that since 2006, one third of U.S. newspapers have disappeared as well.
CRAIG FORMAN In many cases, the local publisher had reigned somewhat supreme for decades, and these were businesses that were highly profitable.
BOB GARFIELD Craig Forman is president and CEO of the McClatchy Company, a newspaper group that in February declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
CRAIG FORMAN I will argue that these companies did not move fast enough with the perspective of the digital changes that were already underway, from 1995 to ’96 to do the things that are required to be successful in this everything is accelerating digital environment in which you need to operate. You could argue that the seeds of the Internet's challenge to the newspaper business were planted well in advance of the actual peak revenue year for newspapers. 2006.
BOB GARFIELD The first big blow was Craigslist, which in a few short years decimated the classified ad market. By far, the most profitable segment of newspaper publishing. eBay, Monster.com in the like would soon finish the job off.
JEFF JARVIS Publishers were intermediaries, middlemen.
BOB GARFIELD Jeff Jarvis is a professor of journalism at the City University of New York.
JEFF JARVIS The Internet hates middlemen and killed them. It disintermediated all of them because no longer to just pay the newspaper $400 to sell your car, you could now put an ad online on Craigslist or anywhere else for free. No longer did the real estate agent have to go through you, they could deal directly with their own Web site on the Internet. So we as the middleman who had a chokehold on all of his advertisers lost out.
BOB GARFIELD Then in the mid-aughts came so-called Web 2.0 and its avalanche of consumer generated content. A decade earlier, there had been some tens or hundreds of thousands of publishers, large and small in the world now, suddenly, tens of millions all vying for the same basically finite pool of advertising dollars. And that, says McClatchy's Craig Forman:
CRAIG FORMAN ...left many of these local news companies behind the times as they struggled to keep up with the digital revolution.
BOB GARFIELD Because publishers of all sizes became tantalized by raw traffic. The astonishing global reach afforded by the Internet was a siren call, enticing them to sail toward the shoals. Like Odysseus, they should have resisted by lashing themselves to the mast. But no, almost all formed a strategy based on monetizing that tremendous reach, giving the content away for free on the expectation that all the extra eyeballs would generate extra ad revenues, and thus they navigated one after another straight into the rocks.
CRAIG FORMAN And I think what became apparent to those of us who have been on the digital side of things is that reach alone is not a savior. Reach alone without a backstop of deeply engaged users is not something that will provide a sustainable business.
BOB GARFIELD Because not only had the competition grown exponentially, the vast glut of advertising supplied depressed the prices anyone could fetch, which is what publishers mean by going from analog dollars to digital dimes. Legacy publishers accustomed to 30 percent profit margins and more were suddenly confronted with single digit profits or worse, much worse.
NEWS REPORT And the press shuddered to a halt this morning at Missoula's Weekly Independent newspaper, a staff reporter at the Missoula Independent confirmed to NTN he received a letter from the Missoulian at 7:30 this morning, twenty minutes later, he received a phone call to not report to work. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Not that brands stopped advertising in that same period more than 200 billion dollars emerged in the annual world ad economy. But none of that junk reached the news media, not Forman's. Sacramento Bee, not The Huffington Post. Slate, BuzzFeed. Yahoo! or any of the digital native pioneers with shiny interfaces and big online audiences. No, that $200 billion doesn't go to any publisher at all.
NEWS REPORT In business, like it or not, Facebook earnings surged despite a year of scandals as users...
NEWS REPORT Together, Google and Facebook comprise about 60 percent of all digital ad dollars. And it is very possible that they will grow their market share through Coronavirus. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The Facebook Google duopoly. It changed everything. As Jeff Jarvis said, who needs media middlemen when you can speak directly to the customer and not just blather based on a rough guess of the customers interests? No, no, no, no, no. Based on your own personal search behavior, Facebook postings, likes, dislikes, the big platforms know more about you than you know about you, which is all brand advertisers ever dreamed of. But here's the thing. Facebook and Google swallow about one third of the world's advertising dollars, but neither produces any content whatsoever that bears repeating. None whatsoever. And they certainly don't undertake any journalism at all. If you were interested in news not about Washington politics, pandemics or the Kardashians, you’re increasingly going to have to snoop around for it. If you're looking for news from your statehouse or county courthouse, you're simply out of luck. And by the way, while according to the News Media Alliance, newspapers get 67 percent of their traffic through Google and Facebook, they get only 14 percent of their revenue. All right. All right. So what's to be done about this? Craig Forman, the prodigal who left The Wall Street Journal at the start of the digital revolution to manage the very digital businesses so disruptive to the news bizz, returned three and half years ago to lead McClatchey to the Promised Land. This obliges him to get all leaderly and pronounced.
CRAIG FORMAN You cannot be a victim. You have to be able to control the things you can control. You can only change your future. You cannot change the past.
BOB GARFIELD True enough, but the future's a tough row to hoe. If perhaps you think that the problem is printing presses and dead trees and digital publishing is a low cost money machine. Well, not really. The gruesome ad market has also consigned digitally native news sites to unprofitability. Many are financed by venture capitalists whose investments are gradually burning away. And if you think newspapers can simply adopt public broadcasting's donor model like the one that brings you this program, bear in mind that the sum needed to replace advertising amounts to tens of billions of dollars, billions not available in the all too finite pool of noblesse oblige. Not to mention putting your local paper in competition with Masterpiece, the museum, the opera and cancer. So yeah, if you're conjuring an image of the Grim Reaper and maybe he looks like Mark Zuckerberg, you're not wrong. But it must be said that none of this is a morality play. It's not that the pure good of the analog world has been desecrated by the dark forces of digital evil. That second epoch may have been lucrative and convenient, but it wasn't some sort of divine order of things.
JEFF JARVIS God did not give newspapers and magazines the revenue that they think Google and Facebook took from them.
BOB GARFIELD CUNY’S Jeff Jarvis.
JEFF JARVIS And Google and Facebook offered better deals with greater efficiency and more performance to the advertisers we used to rip off and they gladly ran away from us. And to a great extent it's entirely our fault. These are things we could have done. We could have figured out community. We could have figured out new ways to present information. But we didn't. And now we're paying that price. Now, the harm to journalism is great, but that harm is almost entirely self-inflicted.
BOB GARFIELD Jarvis isn't entirely pessimistic. To him, the answer is to stop thinking of journalism as a product, to be manufactured and instead as a service of, by and for communities, a model for which the very digital tools that have ravaged the news business can serve to recreate it.
JEFF JARVIS I think that we are at the point of scorched earth and what we have to look for now is how to rebuild something entirely new from the ashes.
BOB GARFIELD A pleasant notion. But in the midst of a pandemic that makes the problems twice as bad and as someone who fears that our democracy cannot wait for the Phenix to rise. I have a slightly different take. God help us all. God help us all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, death and maybe rebirth?
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Pittsburgh has no print daily, the historic Chicago Defender that served the African-American community for over a century and gave wings to the Great Migration now lives only online. The Youngstown Vindicator established 1869, regarded as fearless in its pursuit of local corruption, the Mafia and the KKK, last summer, a former competitor bought its name. But that signature fire in the belly, who's got the money for that? New Jersey’s Star Ledger, the state's leading daily noteworthy for its Pulitzer Prizes and having fictional Mafioso Tony Soprano as a subscriber was slammed by pay cuts and furloughs when the pandemic hit, squeezing the life out of an already gasping newsroom. Advance Publications, its owner, had been hollowing out the ledger for years, just as it had its other holdings, like the diminished Oregonian or the decimated Cleveland Plain Dealer. Coronavirus was just fortuitous. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, established 1842, had some 350 reporters in the early 2000s, now there are four. When the paper shed a third of its newsroom staff back in 2013, investigative reporter Rachel Dissell had already been there for a decade. She'd seen the newsroom at its peak and she watched it shrivel. Last month it was Dissell and most of her remaining colleagues turn.
RACHEL DISSELL Ginger Christ, who's the head of our newsroom guild, was at a press conference where the mayor and city officials were talking about how they would be handling Coronavirus when she got a phone call. The notice had been sent to us announcing these layoffs. And from then on, our objective was making sure that the people who were going to be laid off had health care since it was the middle of a pandemic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, you started at the paper when you were in your teens. And how did you get there?
RACHEL DISSELL Well, I wasn't drinking age. Let's put it that way. I grew up in the Cleveland area. And when I graduated from college, you know, one of my main goals was to come back and work in the community that raised me up, especially because I was very poor. The oldest of six kids and reporting gave me kind of a voice, I felt, and I really wanted to use that voice in my own community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you have. You have focused on the victims of violence and on the marginalized, and you've been recognized for it. But they wanted to hire you initially because of a phone call, is the story I heard.
RACHEL DISSELL I was a student at Kent State and I had been an intern at the paper. And I was stringing a story about some quote unquote, riots that were happening at the end of the school year and a photographer was sent down to work with me. And we both got arrested for failing to disperse in an emergency. Then ended up in the city jail. And I still had my notepad and my pencil. And so I interviewed all of the many drunk college students in the jail and used my one phone call to call the news desk and start reading them the quotes. And they were quite surprised. They were like, wait, you're in jail? What do we need to do to get you guys out? And I was like, hold up. We'll figure that out. Take down these quotes. Get em in the paper. Yeah, I think that that was a moment that some of the editors remembered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when the staff was reduced to 14 not long ago, you were among them. But that group of 14 was told that no one from the Cleveland Plain Dealer would be covering Cleveland. You'd be covering the suburbs, the excerpts, it would be the website, Cleveland.com that was covering the city. Why?
RACHEL DISSELL You know, I want to be really clear. I don't think that anybody thought that those places didn't deserve to have good news coverage because they do. You know, they're part of our community, too. The part that hurt was the feeling that expertise that a lot of us had built up over years and covering things well wasn't going to be useful anymore. Myself and Brie Zeltner, who is a public health reporter who was laid off, spent five years covering lead poisoning, very in-depth, following it along, writing about solutions that we wouldn't be able to keep doing. That was really difficult because I don't know what we would tell people that we stopped caring about that. That didn't seem right. And then, frankly, on a personal level, we know that the contract we have with the paper would probably be terminated at the end of the year. And so we had two impossible choices to make. One, to keep working for the paper and not cover what we knew we were best at. And two, to take the benefits that we accrued and make sure we could take care of our families while we figure out what to do next.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You volunteered or you asked to be laid off. How come you made that decision?
RACHEL DISSELL You know, it was a really, really difficult decision to make, but I kind of just felt like the signals that they were sending were that maybe they didn't want me around anymore. And I certainly don't want to be where I'm not wanted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The new editor of The Plain Dealer, Tim Warsinskey. He wrote a column in which he said that the layoffs were emblematic of a larger challenge our industry is facing. I guess the question is, did you find the timing a little strange?
RACHEL DISSELL You know, I try not to blame people like Tim Warsinskey, who was named editor just very shortly before this happened. You know, I don't think someone who worked for the paper for 30 years wanted to be the one to end the newsroom. I had a number of people that reached out to me. They were so angry and asked if they should cancel the paper or if they should never click on Cleveland.com again. I could not tell those people not to pay for local journalism. I told them you have to continue to pay for this because not paying for it is not going to make it any better. It's not in my DNA to tell people not to do that, no matter how upset or angry I am about how this ended. It still needs support. And so I'm definitely committed to finding ways to support it here locally, whether it's working with our public radio station, which is pretty great, or starting a nonprofit newsroom on our own and keeping the work going.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me, what was the last story that you were working on when this happened?
RACHEL DISSELL You know, we didn't really know when our last moment was going to be. So Ginger Christ, who's one of the health reporters, and I were trying to tag team stories to make sure we could get things done. And we had gotten a public records request back from the city of Cleveland that was a really long list of all the businesses that people had complained about that were either violating the governor shutdown order or not practicing social distancing in their offices or who had sick employees and so we wrote a story about that, filed it probably about four hours before we were officially laid off. I just wanted to note that the time we're talking right now is the time when the governor does his daily press conference. Old habits die hard. We've both been listening to it every day and taking notes and keeping a story idea list. Since we can't do daily stories right now, are there longer term things that we feel will need attention that we are going to try to find a way to pay attention to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So tell me about some other of the journalists who were laid off, people who aren't contributing to reporting in northeast Ohio. I mean, what's the expertise that's been lost in this month alone?
RACHEL DISSELL Yes. So Patrick O'Donnell, who was our education reporter, he's been at the paper since 1992. He's well-respected across the country. He's broken stories on what's happening to public school systems as more people are utilizing school vouchers to send their children to private schools or charter schools. Laura DeMarco, who's written books on Cleveland history and is very well respected, she did some beautiful, beautiful work her last week looking at the inside of all of these churches that people could not be in because they were not supposed to be going to church. Brie Zeltner, who was our public health reporter, did incredibly important reporting on infant mortality, especially when it comes to black families who are just very disproportionately affected by this in Ohio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The public health reporter was laid off?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that when you quit, you wanted to continue this work with a nonprofit. A we’re recording this on April 21st, it sounds like you're moving out of the grief phase into a different one?
RACHEL DISSELL I'm trying to. I think when you're asking me questions about how I felt, I was being pulled back into the grief phase. For something that so many people agree that is important. I don't quite understand why we haven't been able to figure out a way collectively and globally to make sure that it exists and that it's strong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I mean, it's a question of public conditioning to persuade them to pay for accountability in government and to protect their own interests and to look after their neighbors and their communities.
RACHEL DISSELL Yeah, I mean, I what I really wish we had was a time machine so we could go back in and do this over. Because I was explaining even to my own kids who were having a hard time understanding what was going on, that if the Starbucks that they really love had given away coffees for free for 10 or 15 years, and then at that point started wanting to charge $5 for a super fancy coffee. People would have gone nuts and walked away. And that was the best way I could explain to them the situation that we ended up in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rachel, thank you very much.
RACHEL DISSELL Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rachel Dissell is an investigative reporter formerly with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. So what are the options for local publications struggling to serve their communities in the face of plummeting revenue? Well, as of last month, 40 newsrooms comprised the Colorado News Collaboratives COVID-19 coverage network largely in response to urgent need, with outlets based in richer and poorer communities sharing resources. In Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan's student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, is the town's only daily, students cover the big local stories, an operation floated by the school's $4.5 million endowment. Having students pick up the slack is a laudable trend, but a risky one. Local stories demand the same specialized skills as national ones and institutional memory and sources are lost when the reporter turnover rate is that of a four year university. So what about tapping the tech giants who have profited from all that free news? Sure, they've been pressured to support the local news that populates their feeds and search pages. And sure, Facebook and Google have launched journalism funding initiatives, but upholding democracy has never seemed to be their first order of business. If anyone is responsible for democracy's upkeep, it would be government itself, but again, obviously risky. Some lawmakers want local news included in the Coronavirus stimulus bill because it's made the problem much worse. Others argue for a more permanent solution. Or how about a service program in the mold of the Peace Corps and Teach for America? That's an option put forth by a project called Report for America. Steven Waldman is president and co-founder.
STEVE WALDMAN We recruit talented journalists from all over the country and then we recruit talented newsrooms that are committed to improving their local coverage and we match the two. So our goal is to have a thousand reporters by 2024. Now, we just quadrupled our program this year, going from 59 reporters to 225 reporters that are going to start in June. Initially, they'll be covering COVID, gradually they'll be shifting to the beats that they were originally assigned to, could be housing shortage, could be schools, could be covering the military base, or veterans or seniors, what the local newsrooms view as the most urgent under-covered issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We've lost some 34000 newspaper jobs in recent years. What you're doing is kind of a drop in the bucket, right?
STEVE WALDMAN Well, I think what we're trying to also prove is that we can't just keep thinking in terms of the traditional ways of doing things. So our financial model is we pay half the salary and then the newsroom is on the hook for the other half of the salary. But we work with them to raise half of their half from the community. And the hope is this is going to draw small donors who will end up supporting a wide range of local news organizations, much in the way that successful public radio stations have been doing for a long time. In some ways, it's a seismic shift in the way we think about local news. We used to think of it as a business because it was working as a business, you know. But the business models are not going to come back, especially around labor intensive accountability reporting. We have to have people in the community supporting it through donations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You will this year or very shortly be placing 225 journalists into the field. Who are these people?
STEVE WALDMAN They're amazing. First of all, the average age is 27. So it's not primarily people right out of college. They’re radio journalists and print journalists who have a few years of experience, but feel like maybe they're not sinking their teeth into really meaningful beats. They come from all over the place. Five of them are veterans. What unites them is not only do they want a job, but that they all view local journalism as a public service. These are folks who are raising their hand and saying, we want to go work in Oklahoma. We want to go work in low income communities that have been ignored. We want to go work in rural counties that haven't had reporters covering them in years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I read on the Nieman Lab website that 40 percent of them are journalists of color, more than a quarter speak Spanish, more than three quarters are women. And they'll be in 162 newsrooms across the 50 states and Puerto Rico.
STEVE WALDMAN Yeah, we're very, very proud of the diversity of our core. It also reflects what we were hearing from the newsrooms. They want to diversify their newsrooms and they want their reporting staff to better represent their communities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So I'm assuming that a majority of the reporters that you place are being put into a community they probably don't know. I'm just wondering how have they been deployed?
STEVE WALDMAN About a third to a half of the reporters are from the area that they're reporting in. But the other portion, as you said, are people who are new to the area. Now, that obviously is not uncommon among journalists. It's always challenging to do that. The other thing that we do in order to try to help them sink roots down into the community is that we require the reporters to do a community service project. What we have them do is work in high schools and middle schools to help with youth created media, meaning like a high school newspaper or a high school podcast, or broadcast partially to excite and train the next generation of potential journalists to teach everyone in a high school or as many as we can about what journalism is and media literacy. And then there's also practical benefit for the reporter. It gives them another way of getting embedded in the community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Make me feel good and show me some examples of work that your reporters did that otherwise might not have been done. Success stories.
STEVE WALDMAN Yes. So Will Wright working at the Lexington Herald Leader in eastern Kentucky in rural Kentucky did stories about how they didn't have clean running drinking water.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And where is he from? What's his story?
STEVE WALDMAN He grew up in an Appalachian part of Pennsylvania and went to school at University of Kentucky. So he was of that area and wrote these stories about something that the people in that area had been complaining about for a while. It's not like he was the first one to uncover this fact, but he listened and broadcast those concerns and got a lot of attention for it to the point that the state legislature allocated several million dollars to try to clean up the water in eastern Kentucky. We have another reporter, Michelle Liu at Mississippi Today. She was right out of college and she was placed in a community that she didn't know. So Michelle did a great series of stories about a spike in prison deaths. Sometimes we might have a misconception that the way accountability reporting happens is the way it did on the Spotlight movie, where you have people working on it for six months. And that does happen sometimes. But most often what happens is beat reporters who are covering a topic regularly start to see a pattern. And that's what happened with Michelle. And you'd see that her story is nine deaths in August. And then another story, 10 deaths in August and 11 deaths. You start to see over time, this is not an anomaly. This is a deep problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Give me another example of accountability reporting.
STEVE WALDMAN Zak Podmore, who had been a very talented freelance reporter out West. We placed him at the Salt Lake Tribune and he was assigned to one of the lowest income counties in the state. And very quickly, he found that the county had been lobbying on a controversial parks project against the popular sentiment. But more importantly, that they had been double billed by their lobbying firm and had overpaid. That came to light and the county got a refund of about one hundred thousand dollars. Obviously, lots of accountability reporting is uncovering problems, billions of dollars of waste. But I like this one because one hundred thousand dollars is about triple his salary. And so in one story he made back for the people of that county, something like twice or three times his personal salary. It's a cool example of journalists providing value to the community that doesn't get necessarily captured and page views or awards or just shows the public service nature of what they're doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE To what extent is solving the crisis in local news an economic problem? And to what extent is it cultural?
STEVE WALDMAN Yeah, I think our focus on business models, which is important, we got to understand what the problem is. But the solution is not going to be the new app that somehow manages to magically solve this or a tweak to the commercial business models. Certainly local newspapers have to do better with different revenue streams, but it also requires us as a society to start to think of local news as a civic responsibility in the same way that we think about the schools or the libraries. Important local cultural institutions, you can't have a healthy community without having a healthy local news sector.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I just recall that when I was a kid, I never paid for water, I never paid for TV. But now I'm used to doing both of those things. And so I wondered whether you needed a reeducation.
STEVE WALDMAN On a fundamental level, we can't have community journalism without the community supporting it. We used to have that on the cheap in a way, because advertisers were supporting it. Advertisers are not going to be able to hold up the local media system the way that they did before. And that's the new reality we have to get used to. If they're not going to, someone else has to and someone else has to be the residents of the communities themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Have your reporters encountered a political problem as well? Or the organizations that they're placed in? In an era when the president slimes journalists as enemies of the people and scum of the earth, are they facing great resistance when they ask communities to pitch in so that the reporters can help keep their officials accountable?
STEVE WALDMAN It is the case that sometimes reporters will go into communities where they're held in great suspicion about the way. That's not just in red states who go into minority communities that feel like they have been badly covered for decades, if not centuries. And there's suspicion of reporters there, too. Our solution is really basic. Just be there, tell their stories and we find that that is working, you know, Will Wright, the reporter who covered eastern Kentucky, one of the reddest counties in the country, and a huge amount of suspicion about the local newspaper. But over time, they started to view Will Wright as the guy who helped get them cleaner drinking water. Not as well. Right. Enemy of the people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve, thank you so much.
STEVE WALDMAN Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve Waldman is president and co-founder of Report for America.
BOB GARFIELD Let's just say this is nobody's fault. Sure. Big media companies were avaricious and short sighted and inept. And yeah, vulture capitalists are swooping in to buy moribund properties, which they will cut and cut and cut till they're bled dry. And yes, Facebook, having acquired so much market power, has behaved immorally, except for when it behaves immorally. A convergence of forces chief among them, technology has yielded local news dystopia at the worst possible time amid a pandemic of disease and a pandemic of lies. When elected officials confer impunity on their crooked cronies, when the information that society needs to choose its path is suppressed. Just when the watchdogs are most needed, they're chained up and starving. This hour, we've laid it all out, past, present and uncertain future. It's more frightening than maddening and so we've leaned hard on understanding, soft pedaled on blame. But if we're searching for accountability, mustn't we also look inward? Are you, news consumer paying your way? Are you feeding the watchdogs? Do you subscribe to your local paper, your local public radio station? No. Well, then do that. As they say now more than ever, it's not just that you've come to depend on us, it's that otherwise, the way things are going, the news desert may soon envelop us all.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blondiau. And our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Bassist composer Ben Alison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this is a show we planned months ago. But the schedule got trampled by the onrush of extraordinary events. The point being, it was never intended to coincide with a pledge drive, but it has and what the hell? We sure could use your contribution if you can afford it. If you can't, well, we get it. Boy, do we get it. I don't think we've ever felt closer to our own fragility as individuals, as a staff, as a nation than we do right now. So if you can't, you can't. And if you can, then please do. And if you really can, give double. Go to onthemedia.org to donate or text OTM to 70101.