The Erosion of Local Journalism: How Technological Shifts Created News Deserts
Oct 31, 2016
The Erosion of Local Journalism: Technological Shifts Lead to News Deserts and Media Concentration, Impacting Societies and Democracy.
This is a story that, if you are Brazilian, you already know: a medium-sized city, even one with significant purchasing power, has a small newspaper (rarely more than one), semi-professional and closely related to the local political and financial elites. The result of this equation, deficient journalism aligned with local power, created large "news deserts", vast territories where local coverage was restricted and only TV established itself as a source of information. A combination of technological and customs evolution and a recession were enough for the USA to also experience this "desertification". Today it is easier to know what happens on the other side of the world than on your street, and there is no solution in sight.
The new balance of media consumption forces and values is devastating what still remains of the traditional model that maintained one or more daily newspapers in small or medium-sized cities in the USA, creating what journalist Tom Stites, from the Banyan Project, called News Deserts - stretches of territory where local coverage drops to as low as zero. The verb above is not yet in the past - the devastation is not yet over. It will continue to increase, relentless, until a technological way out opens a door or companies forget how they made money and reformat their business models based on what the scenario is and not what it once was. Without realizing what to do, the scorched earth is only a matter of time.
From 2004 onwards, the country lost more than 600 newspapers, while a similar number ceased to operate daily, adopting frequencies ranging from biweekly to monthly. It is ironic that the concentration of power in two fundamental sectors of American identity - banking and media - is the epicenter of the socio-economic crisis of the largest capitalist democracy on the planet. 10 banks hold 80% of the banking system in the country and the number of newspaper owners in the country is rapidly decreasing.
More than a thousand have left the market from 2004 onwards - an average of 8 per month between 2004 and 2014. Circulation fell by nearly 25 million daily readers, the 25 largest groups that own newspapers have more than 2,000 titles and a good part of these owners are no longer journalistic companies, but investment funds that buy newspapers in precarious situations and make layoffs, cut all kinds of costs and/or close titles to extract the highest possible profit. Understanding the Trump phenomenon against this backdrop is much easier.
Brazil did not have the problem to this extent because of the history on which the industry developed in the country. The first newspaper in Brazil was a government newspaper and throughout history, no company not aligned with the state managed to survive more than a decade with any relevance. High rates of illiteracy, limited access to credit and a long list of governments with an authoritarian vocation or explicit dictatorships did the rest.
Even in cities with a few hundred thousand inhabitants, there was not a number of newspapers that allowed a healthy ecosystem. We have always lived in a news desert. The status quo in Brazil has always wanted to maintain a few sources of information, easily co-opted.
The American story is diametrically opposite. In the United States, cities as small as Tarboro, North Carolina, which has about 11,000 people, had one or more newspapers. Tarboro, in this case, saw the local daily, a title that was 188 years old, close its doors. Local newspapers have an important function in a society in which the State submits to the law. Even though the government has a vocation for authoritarianism due to its very nature, societies like the American one still obey the institutional order. Local journalism acts as a "society's caretaker", in a phrase from the controversial journalist Carlos Lacerda.
The American "desertification" is the symptom of the dismantling of a healthy society. Ideologies and foreign policy aside, in the 20th century, the country had a gradual distribution of power and income to society as a whole. From the late 1970s, the movement began to reverse. The accumulation of wealth and power by multinational corporations began to undermine the foundations of this society - the average American. Wall Street gained more and more space in the government and financed the deregulation that caused the 2008 crisis and ultimately, created the mega-funds and institutions that are dining on the journalistic ecosystem of the country.
As egocentric as they may be, information companies had an understanding of how their niche worked. Corporations alien to the industry make decisions at the tip of the pencil, cutting costs, laying off and closing everything necessary to deliver the highest value to shareholders, regardless of how much chaos this may generate in the communities victimized by these cuts.
Part of the solution to this problem will come in a very traumatic way. A generation of entrepreneurs has to be buried - like the newspaper in Tarboro - for another one to emerge in its place. The understanding of the business does not have to be adapted - it needs to be redone. Some American newspapers, like the Texas Tribune, have developed revenue sources that are no longer based on the logic of classifieds/banners visibility.
Organizing events, replacing subscriptions with memberships, producing content for external clients (read, advertisers and/or other companies) seem to have more stamina than the traditional design. This, however, is not enough to avoid desertification or recover lost ground - yet. We cannot know if the process will take more or less time to be reversed or the size of the damage to be repaired. This measure is what will determine the size of the trauma and, yes, it can be quite large.