When local papers die, the ghouls rush in
Sure enough, opportunists have rushed into America's local news void, sowing thousands of poisonous "imposter" news sites that churn out lies and partisan hackery in the guise of legitimate reporting.
My newspaper died. Well, technically it still appears, but even when it is delivered, it has no life, no news, and barely a pulse. A mere semblance of a real paper, the Austin American-Statesman is one of the hundreds of local journalism zombies that rely on a bare number of mostly longtime readers like me who cling to a memory of what used to be and a flickering hope that, surely, the thing won't get worse. And then it does.
Our papers are getting worse at a time we desperately need them to get better. They are no longer mediums of journalism, civic purpose, and local identity. Rather, they've been reduced to little more than profit siphons, steadily piping local money to the handful of distant, high-finance syndicates that have bought out our hometown journals. The American-Statesman, for example, was swallowed up in 2019 by the nationwide Gannett chain, where it joined more than 1,000 mass-produced "local" papers under the corporation's "USA Today Network" banner. But even that reference is a deception, since it's actually a product of SoftBank Group, the multibillion-dollar Japanese financial consortium that owns and controls Gannett.
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SoftBank has no interest in Austin as a place, a community, or even as a newspaper market. Nor does it care one whit about advancing the principles of journalism. As aggressive as airline monopolists at charging more for less, SoftBank is in the profit business, specifically the business of extracting maximum short-term payouts.
This business model has rapidly become the standard for American newspapering. Today, more than half of all US dailies are in the grip of just 10 of these money syndicates. Indeed, only three high-flying hedge funds (SoftBank, Alden Global Capital, and Chatham Asset Management) have captured your dailies in Baltimore, Boston, Burlington, Chicago, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Columbus, Des Moines, Detroit, El Paso, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Louisville, Miami, Milwaukee, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Jose, St. Paul ... and many more. Equally important, these profiteers are snatching up hundreds of weeklies meant to serve neighborhoods, suburbs, and rural communities from coast to coast.
Far from serving your news needs, they're strictly interested in diverting the papers' income and assets into jet streams of cash that fly from our local economies straight into their private wealth funds. This "financialization" of journalism is a Wall Street euphemism for old-fashioned plundering, accomplished by decimating staff (editors, reporters, et al.), closing news bureaus, outsourcing design and other production work, shrinking the paper's size and frequency, nationalizing and standardizing content, selling off printing plants, real estate, and other core assets ... and drastically jacking up the paper's price.
All of the above not only remove wealth and jobs, basic information, connection, and voices from our communities, but also transfer community power to a tiny circle of superrich speculators who don't give a damn about newspapers, our towns, or us.
This plundering of journalism is in no way the fault of the thousands of talented, dedicated journalists and production staffers who --facing impossible odds--have fought hard against ownership's demoralizing greed, ignorance, and its indifference to what remains of the press. Yet, in a short time, piece by piece, our Austin paper has been financialized into the SoftBank American-Statesman:
• Our Saturday paper has been eliminated, apparently on the ridiculous rational that "nothing ever happens on Fridays." (Corporations and public officials routinely release unpleasant and incriminating news on Fridays, knowing it will not be covered until Monday, and then only minimally.)
• Now printed 90 miles from Austin, the paper has a 5 pm news deadline--meaning that election results, breaking news, sports scores, city council meetings, etc. won't be reported for a day and a half, if then.
• Round after round of newsroom and production cuts have left the paper sorely understaffed and important subject areas uncovered. Days go by with no original reporting of significance about this newsworthy capital of America's third-largest state.
Final editing and design fall largely to understaffed, out-of-town contractors trying to rush out papers for multiple cities. Sloppy results include articles running thrice in the same edition, a regular embarrassment of grammatical errors, one sports section that surprised readers with three blank sheets, and a weather page offering a detailed, four-color map ... for Oklahoma.
Worst is the SoftBank Statesman's daily substitution of filler and puffery for articles of substance and timeliness. Chopped-to-fit day-old reprints of already chopped-down stories from USA Today are standard fare, as are full-page celebrity profiles, "articles" that are obviously corporate press releases, pages of oversized file photos, and 20-page "news sections" padded with 15 pages of ads. Especially cheesy is its creation of unpaid "content" by asking readers to write about such topics as: "What do you like most about the American-Statesman?"
• A recent editorial from Gannett's high command hailed newspaper opinion sections as "one of the treasured hallmarks of a democracy, a modern-day town square." Then, with no admission of irony, the same piece announced that Gannett was shrinking the size and content of its vaunted opinion section and running it only three days a week; reducing letters to the editor to a Sunday-only handful; and summarily eliminating the work of popular national columnists and cartoonists. All this so a few more dollars of revenue can go to SoftBank's investors.
To go along with this cheapening of the paper, SoftBank raised its price. A lot. Subscriptions were $48 a month when Gannett & Bankers came to town three years ago. So far, they've doubled that to $99.60 a month (over $4 per paper), plus an annual $5 "statement fee" for sending a bill! This is waaay beyond what the vast majority of Austinites can or will pay, plus it's cash that zips away to SoftBank for management fees, debt service, exorbitant executive pay, and profits, rather than being invested in reporters and other staff to improve the paper. Then they wonder why they're losing subscribers and can't attract new ones.
But maybe they can attract federal help. A July appeal on the American-Statesman's front page shamelessly screamed for public assistance: "Tell your members of Congress to support the JCPA act and save local news." The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is a modest proposal meant to protect local papers from pillaging by Big Tech monopolists including Facebook and Google. It would require tech firms to start paying for news stories and other content they now essentially steal from local journalists, giving our hometown papers a better chance of survival in the critical public service of news delivery. Good!
But, uh-oh, here come SoftBank, Alden, Chatham, et al. scheming to funnel future JCPA payments straight into their distant bank vaults. Bad!
They're trying to take us on a dizzying spin aboard the Monopoly-Go-Round, twisting a law intended to fight exploitation by tech monopolists into a tool to enable financial monopolists to tighten their stranglehold on local journalism. At a minimum, JCPA must be amended to mandate that any and all revenue it provides for local journalism actually stays local and pays for journalism.
The general claim of SoftBank and the other money syndicates is that most people no longer value print media enough to subscribe and sustain a broad network of local papers, so contraction, consolidation, and homogenization are just good business practices. They add that they should be hailed as media heroes for salvaging remnants of local journalism in their investment portfolios. Before they break their arms patting themselves on the back, let's note that:
1. Local people do in fact value hometown papers, surveys reveal, resent that theirs have been diminished or liqui- dated, and feel a deep loss of community power and connection.
2. Readers quit subscribing to these remnants because they're nothing-papers, empty news calories that don't inform, enliven, or unify.
3. The gross cuts the syndicates are making-- even as they jack-up prices--are not for the papers' survival, but for their own extravagant enrichment at untenable double- digit annual returns, rather than a 5-8% profit that could allow more top-quality journalism.
And there's the rub. Maximization of profits for the very few is wholly contrary to the greater good of maximizing news and democracy for the many. Independent, free-ranging journalism is essential for a democratic people (which is why the one enterprise singled out in the Constitution for supreme protection is the free press). But town after town has now learned that the press is not free if theirs is just another profit center for hedge fund hucksters.
Into the void
It's a personal loss to have your local newspaper zombiefied or shut down, but the greatest loss is in civic power. Despite shortcomings, a decent local newspaper (printed or digital) is a community's main repository of shared information, its broadest public forum for shaping and monitoring a common agenda, and its principal means of exposing corporate and governmental corruption--and rallying opposition to it. No other medium does that. Sure, there are local internet newsboards (so sketchy in so many ways), and there's "TV news," but come on, it's not even deep enough to be called shallow, and the news snippets they do present are often taken from newspapers. America has lost a quarter of our local papers just since 2005, with an average of two more folding every week, and nearly every survivor cutting back to a fraction of what it was.
This is a devastating development for our social cohesion, but as we've learned in recent years, nothing can be so bad for society that right-wing demagogues and extremist groups won't pile on to make it immeasurably worse. Sure enough, these opportunists have rushed into America's local news void, sowing thousands of poisonous "imposter" news sites that churn out lies and partisan hackery in the guise of legitimate reporting.
Take one particularly noisy piece of the GOP's current culture- war bunkum: Critical Race Theory. For 60 years, CRT, an examination of racism's central role in shaping our society, has been a field of academic study little known to the general public. In the last few years, though, a covey of right-wing operatives has seized on the phrase, shrieking that Critical Race Theory is a liberal mind-control plot pushed by a cadre of diabolical K-12 school teachers. The scaremongers warn that the goal of CRT is to demonize and "replace" white society with un-Christian multicultural rule.
It's a patently kooky bugaboo, of course; that's not what CRT is, nor is the subject even taught in our K-12 schools, much less spread in a cosmic plot. But that reality hasn't stopped power-hungry witch hunters like Florida's Ron DeSantis, Texas's Greg Abbott, and (witchiest of all) Donald Trump from actually issuing executive edicts BANNING schools from teaching a subject that--Hello--they are not teaching.
So ... how did such a non-issue rise to the tippy-top of the Republican political agenda? Fake News, that's how. For the past couple of years, thousands of articles declaring that CRT is infiltrating public education, have repeatedly run in the Miami Courant, Houston Republic, San Francisco Sun, Chicago City Wire, Kalamazoo Times, St. Louis Reporter, Philly Leader, Wisconsin Business Daily, and scores of other "local newspapers" from coast to coast.
Never heard of these dailies? That's because none of them are actually news, local, or even paper. All are right-wing propaganda fronts, and they are just a few of some 1,300 hyper-partisan websites owned and run by Metric Media, a bogus news fabricator. MM's faux-local news sites spew out a gusher of articles every month, trumpeting the BIG LIE of a massive CRT conspiracy. Many of the articles are automated and carry no byline. Yet the sites, designed to mimic the look of real reporting, create the impression of a spreading national crisis in public education.
Judd Legum, the progressive digger who publishes the excellent Popular Information newsletter, reports that just in the first 10 months of last year, 11,988 of these anti-CRT articles appeared on MM's Florida sites, with another 10,096 running across Texas--giving political cover to the shamelessly demagogic GOP governors in both states who rushed to exploit the non-existent CRT "crisis."
This is not innocent campaign gamesmanship, but politically cynical, crazy BS that's causing real, extensive harm. Teachers are being fired (or quitting in disgust), sane school board members are being literally assaulted by deluded parents, schoolkids are being fed raw ideological ignorance, and elections are being perverted.
The Virginia model
Take last year's gubernatorial race in Virginia, narrowly won by Republican Glenn Youngkin, a son of privilege and the Harvard elite who became a multimillionaire Wall Street predator. He was likely to lose, until his handlers turned him into an unscrupulous, anti-CRT attack dog, fomenting parental fear and racism, while rallying the right-wing hard core with repeated, inflammatory promises to sweep CRT out of Virginia classrooms.
But, golly, CRT was not actually being taught in any of the state's public K-12 schools. To help Youngkin dodge this inconvenient fact, the Central Shenandoah News, Fredericksburg Leader, West Nova News, and 25 other "local" MM sites in Virginia fueled panic during the election by fabricating 4,657 articles spreading the lie that CRT was dominating school curricula. While these "papers" have no subscribers and no significant online readership, they give the appearance of credibility to the campaigns and front groups that deploy these spurious political claims in speeches, mailers, and ads, laundering fantasy to pass as fact by simply saying: "as reported in the Virginia Daily Deceptor."
With Youngkin riding CRT fear into the governor's office last year, expect hyperactive copycat campaigns in Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere this year, with Metric Media and other newspaper pretenders pumping out CRT sludge to poison the waters. Indeed, the lie has become its own political industry, with such billionaire extremists as the Koch brothers' DonorsTrust Network pumping money into it. Meanwhile, an astroturf front called Fight for Schools is stoking paranoia and community factionalism by pushing parents to confront teachers and launch recall campaigns against schoolboard members who won't join the McCarthyesque crusade against an imaginary conspiracy.
No news is bad news
We simply must have actual local newspapers (widely available and affordable, in print or online) that have the community commitment and journalistic resources to do the job of nurturing truth and democracy. Otherwise, we're ceding "news" to the shams, scams, and democratic deterioration that is inevitable under hedge-fund profiteers and networks of partisan hacks, both of which are already becoming dominant across wide stretches of America's media landscape. Journalism is not a private commodity to be controlled by a few for their personal profit or political advancement, it is an essential public resource, key to democratic self-government. And America should start investing in it as such, providing adequate public funding of local, independent, watchdog reporting.
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
Hats off to Rebuild Local News, a coalition of 3,000 plus locally owned, non-profit community-based newsrooms. RLN has drafted a “grand plan” with ideas that could work in your town to increase the strength and vitality of local news. rebuildlocalnews.org
But one big caution: As currently configured, the “Local Journalism Sustainability Act,”which RLN backs, opens huge loopholes. As the nonprofit Poynter Institute points out, the act would channel government money via tax credits “to exactly the greedmongers who are destroying newspapers in the first place, with no real requirement that they use [the funding] to sustain local journalism.”
At least RLB is thinking about what government can do, since private philanthropy can’t meet the billions needed and tends to serve larger, wealthier towns. To make local news sustainable even in small markets, we need to get serious about public funding of nonprofit local media. So, who will lead that charge?
The American Journalism Project has an excellent presentation on the depth of the news crisis (e.g.,the loss of 60% of journalism jobs). While it’s good that AJP’s “venture philanthropy” has raised more than $100 million to support nonprofit news in 37 markets, some 1,800 communities still lack a local newsroom. Maybe AJP should devote some of that private money to building a movement for generous public funding of this essential pillar of democracy. theajp.org
It’s not such a radical notion. The US is notably stingy among democracies. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, 2020 federal funding of public media was $1.40 per capita in the US, compared to $100 or more in the UK, Norway, and Sweden.
Jim Hightower's Hightower Lowdown is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.