THE DEMISE OF LOCAL MEDIA: WHAT IF WE SOON HAVE NO NEWSPAPERS LEFT?

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By Miriam Raftery

February 17, 2014 (San Diego’s East County)--As a journalist, I find it disturbing to see the high number of East County media outlets that have closed their doors, slashed content, or sold out to a corporate conglomerate in recent months.  Those remaining are struggling amid a culture of readers that increasing are failing to support the important job of news gathering that is so critical for our democracy—not to mention keeping you informed of breaking news, emergencies and events in your community.

The latest round of bad news for readers is that Patch.com has announced it has laid off all of its editors at its four East County online news sites (La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Santee, and Ramona) following sale of the parent company.  The result is homogenized regional news on each site, with precious little local news.  The Daily Borregan and the Julian Miner have closed down completely due to lack of revenues.  The Backcountry Messenger, the only print newspaper serving most backcountry communities, has closed down due to the publisher’s retirement.  The Ramona Sentinel—along with seven other community newspapers across the county—has sold to the UT San Diego’s owner, Doug Manchester, meaning loss of even more independent voices locally.

I’m old enough to recall growing up with the Daily Californian, a true daily newspaper with in-depth reporting on issues across our region.  That’s long since evolved in the East County Californian, a weekly publication focused largely on youth sports and community events. 

Citizen bloggers have arisen to partially fill gaps in some communities.  The Deerhorn Valley Antler, the Alpine Community Network, and  Lakeside’s Brush Fire Party Line on Facebook are three notable examples of citizens helping to keep neighbors informed about many issues.  But none of these are substitutes for bona fide news organizations with staff, journalism training and budgets to cover various local board meetings from water to fire to school boards, let alone invest in major investigative news story research.

With a couple of exceptions , most East County communities now have no competitive newspapers –and the majority have no newspaper at all.  East County Magazine’s online news is the only journalistic source of information covering most towns in our inland region. 

The UT San Diego under Manchester’s leadership does offer limited East County coverage, but rarely east of La Mesa or El Cajon. Moreover the UT reports too often reflect developer/owner Doug Manchester’s pro-development bias, omitting many arguments against projects ranging from large housing developments to industrial-scale energy facilities.  Manchester, a major donor to the Republican Party, has also violated the basic rule of journalism to be fair and impartial, even wrapping the front page of his newspaper in editorials for various conservative candidates.  Many East County political races are not even covered at all.

 The UT was formerly the Union and the Tribune, under the Copleys, and while under same ownership there was some rivalry among reporters to  outdo the competition.  That changed with the merger and then later, the sale to Manchester, who also bought up the North County Times, formerly a reliable source of information on our northeast communities. 

Budgets at TV news stations locally have also plummeted.   Newsroom look more like ghost towns due to numerous layoffs.  There is growing emphasis on fluff and celebrity stories instead of real news. Even the much-praised I-team of investigative reporters at ABC 10 News (ECM’s news partner) has had cutbacks recently.

So what can be done to reverse this trend?

For starters, readers need to shoulder some responsibility.  News reporting isn’t free.  In my era, every household paid to subscribe to at least one newspaper, or sometimes several. Today with the proliferation of news online, the younger generation of readers has come to expect everything free.  They are getting what they paid for, sadly.

If you want high quality, in-depth reporting on issues in your community or for that matter, to be kept informed of state, national or international issues that could impact you as well, then buy a subscription to your favorite news publication or donate to your favorite nonprofit media outlet. Better yet, become a sustaining monthly donor.  It’s the only way to assure that independent community news organizations such as ours will survive.  Although we’ve won 58 major journalism awards and have thousands of fan letters from our loyal readers, with 150,000 readers each month, only a tiny fraction of those have actually signed up to be monthly donors at even the lowest level.

Isn’t high quality, independent journalism worth at least $10 a month?

At nonprofit news organizations, 100% of profits go straight back into reporting news you can use – not fattening up shareholders’ pockets or paying hefty salaries to corporate CEOs.  Nonprofits rely heavily on readers’ support – and at every nonprofit news outlet I’ve talked with, there is never quite enough to cover even the basic operating expenses. 

It costs money to pay reporters, photographers, editors, and videographers.  Even volunteers have expenses for mileage.  Libel insurance is a must—and costs thousands of dollars every year.   Maintaining a complex news website such as ours, with archives, lively comment posts and more costs hundreds of dollars more each month.  Then there are costs for newsletter services, audio archives in the case of our radio show, sound editing, and our all-important emergency alert monitors and wildfire reporters in the field. 

Integrity is everything in the news business.  Yet some struggling news outlets have succumbed to temptation and allowed advertisers or corporate donors to dictate what does—or does not—get printed.  In East County, developers of unpopular projects have attempted (sometimes successfully) to buy up ad space in small-town papers or even radio broadcasts, then threaten to yank funds unless truthful reporting was suppressed.  One local publisher told me her newspaper won’t cover anything “controversial” due to fear of losing advertiser support.  Insiders have told me about at least three others that declined to cover important local stories due to undue influence by corporate advertisers.

If you want to help sustain and grow independent media at East County Magazine, a publicaiton of the 501c3 Heartland Coalition, and enable us to help fill the voids left by the demise of some other East County publications, then please click here to send a donation online or by check, or even more importantly, become a monthly donor. Monthly donors are also members of our Editor’s Club, entitled to discounts and early-bird opportunities for our special events.   Large underwriters can also become a sponsor of a special section on our online magazine (which averages 150,000 readers a month), our homepage or our newsletter.

We appreciate the many great story ideas and suggestions from our readers, which you can send to editor@eastcountymagazine.org.  With support from our readers, we hope to be able to report on many more of the stories that matter most to you.

 

Comments

The news filter

Miriam, thank you for your comments. Let me ask another question in the selection of news. Doesn't any news outlet, left, middle or right, create bias through the selection of what it prints, airs? For example, giving credit to your position of trying to interview all candidates or leaders of a referendum, don't some news outlets shape the discussion by choosing to publish only (or almost only) one side of an issue? What if the stories were just about how GUHSD has reneged in some people's minds on building a high school in Alpine? What if the news outlet never showed an alternative view, "Yes, when the bond was passed, enrollment projections supported the construction, but unexpectedly, enrollment is down substantially this year, leading to the conclusion the school would be utilized by far less than what was projected." (I think many people forget just because a bond measure is passed doesn't mean the money has been borrowed and property taxes will increase; it's just an authorization to borrow. Now if the district has gone ahead and borrowed that money and used it for purposes not on the bond, I think most people would agree that's not good.) Or don't news outlets show bias even through the choice of headlines? "CBO says increase in minimum wage will cost 500K jobs." "CBO says increase in minimum wage will lift 900K out of poverty." I think it's up to the reader to look past these kind of things and start thinking for himself/herself about the whole story, not necessarily just what's printed or aired.

Media comments

Actually ECM has run plenty of articles critical of liberal politicians and policies such as the Obama administration's rush to back industrial-scale energy projects damaging our backcountry, for example, or Filner's treatment of women, to cite another. We've also had some stories critical of conservatives such as Hunter dodging debates, or constituents critical of Republicans forcing a government shutdown, and many stories where we had voices on both sides of the aisle to show all sides of a story where possible. As for the GUHSD issues, we have repeatedly reached out and invited district officials and CBOC's chair to be interviewed and they have refused. So if those stories seem one-sided it's because only one side is willing to answer questions posed by media. Our offer still stands to interview any GUHSD or CBOC representative who would like to tell their side of the story. You are however correct that a choice of headline can skew the perception of a story; the CBO versions you cite are good examples of how that can work. Usually we strive for neutrality though if a story is based on a particularly report then the headline may reflect that it's based on a source from one particular camp; this is fairly common for instance if a legislator on either side sends a press release about their bill. We normally Google to trying and find opposition and quote both sides, but sometimes with new bills there's nothing out there yet, so we just publish the links to the bill and a brief statement from the author. It's also true that any media outlet can arguably influence public opinion by what issues it chooses to cover or not cover. AT ECM, we tend to focus most on issues not found in other media, so you might not see too much on, say, the San Diego mayoral race though it's important, but you will see more focus on local school boards, fire boards, and planning groups in East County. We also do welcome editorials with a variety of views; if someone thinks we missed the mark in an article, or simply wants to vent their views in a well-researched reader's editorial, we're happy to publish those and have done so from a variety of perspectives.

they are their own worst enemy

the demise of the mainstream media and the rise of the web and independent medias is a natural reaction to the built in bias and lack of real reporting. television news is not news, it is almost all opinion, regardless of cable or over the air. facts are not important to the news media nowadays. emotion, polls, who or what is popular are the drivers. don't watch it nor do I advise anybody to. i do give ecm credit for giving many voices a chance to speak, but it has clear bias toward liberal causes no matter how destructive to people or economies. even putting one network in quotation marks shows a bias. but opinion is opinion and as long as it is labeled as such then fine. news should be the facts and the truth. facts and truth have no friends or enemies.

But is a laissez-faire

But is a laissez-faire approach to the truth a good way of ensuring it's triumph? Similar approaches with other aspects of life (like diet) have been less than encouraging. Give people junk food, make it accessible, and that's exactly what they'll eat. In fact, they'll die eating it, loving every last bite. Isn't the same thing true of intellectual nourishment? Writing at the end of the 19th century, British historian G.M. Trevelyan noted that "Education has produced a vast population able to read, but unable to distinguish what is worth reading." Mightn't we find confirmation of his insight in the contemporary public's seemingly insatiable appetite for journalistic sensationalism--"entertainment news?" And what exactly are the differences between "bias" and outright propaganda? Is it merely a matter of intent? Do we approve those who mean well but are dreadfully, dangerously wrong, while reserving condemnation for those who, we suspect, purposely lie? And how does one know the difference?

Good points, Craig.

Personally I have no problem with people who wish to be opinionated, just don't label it "news." Call it a talk show, or an op ed. Now news organizations CAN opt to have a focus on issues or topics they believe are important to highlight, whether it's a business publication or a newspaper covering a minority community, and that's fine. I'd expect to see, say, a pro immigrant rights opinion piece in a Latino newspaper or an anti-minimum wage editorial in a business publication. But a general interest news organization should attempt to reflect a variety of viewpoints and bring readers facts to the best of their ability. They also should keep editorials on the editorial pages and not wrap the front page of the newspaper in say, a candidate endorsement - the UT drew criticize from Editor & Publisher magazine for that. I am a fan of nonprofit media because nonprofit news organizations are actually not allowed to endorse candidates, though they can advocate for or against issues to a limited degree (only those in line with their mission statements, and only a limited extend of resources can be used for this). So for instance since our mission statement includes keeping people safe and informed, reflect all voices in our community especially those under-represented in other media, and our parent nonprofit fosters sustainability, we could editorialize on issues such as public safety, needs of the poor or homeless, green or environmental topics if we chose. I personally prefer NOT endorsing candidates -- we are better journalists if we simply give readers the strongest arguments on all sides of the issues, give them a full range of information on every candidate in the race, and empower readers to make informed decisions on their own that might or might not agree with an editor's personal opinion. Two readers can read the same set of facts and come to opposite conclusions based on their own value systems or life experiences, and that's fine with me.

Thanks, Miriam. I'll go even

Thanks, Miriam. I'll go even farther: "opinions" are are not only inevitable, they are necessary; they are the inferences that we invariably draw from--are suggested by--the facts. They are not synonymous with expressions of mere taste, nor are they contrary to reason or truth. "Facts" are not neutral, they are loaded with meaning. However, in my "opinion," they are distinct from propaganda which is, in most cases, intentionally misleading. There is too much of this around, too much of it parading as news, whether in unadorned commentary or editorial form.

Most news outlets have biases....

You wrote, "Manchester, a major donor to the Republican Party, has also violated the basic rule of journalism to be fair and impartial, even wrapping the front page of his newspaper in editorials for various conservative candidates." In the 60's and 70's, the Copley slant was also visibly Republican. Only when David Copley took over was it visibily Democrat-leaning, recommending a partisan slate of Democrats. He had a social agenda as well. I don't have a problem with any news outlet, even the pro-Democrat stance this publication's owner has. Aren't we smart enough to say, "I agree (or disagree) with this publication's leanings, and so I will continue to read (or no longer read)? News publications are private entities, owned by individuals seeking to make a profit, which they're entitled to pursue as part of a capitalistic form of business. It is only natural those owners have their own political and social preferences. If they go too far, they risk alienating their readers and losing circulation. MSNBC is just as left-leaning as Fox is right-leaning. Let the viewer decide which they want to view. If there aren't enough, either programs or the entire station won't survive. As far as a younger generation's valuation of news....I have never seen nor heard of anyone under 30 holding a printed newspaper. Moreover, it is my experience few even read online news. They tend to get it from their friends who get it from non-news outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and other social media which often ends up as "the game of telephone". I say let the biases run freely among publishers. It would spark more conversation and perhaps a more informed society.

politics and media

I do agree that for-profit publications (unlike nonprofits) have a right to editorialize for or against a candidate if they choose. It's a long-standing American tradition, whether conservative or liberal. I take issue though when this is disguised as news, or when the bias is so strong that it affects the news reporting. For instance, under the Copleys, they would not even interview Democratic Congressional candidates, so elections became self-fulfilling prophesies if the largest newspaper in town only publishes information on the incumbent. I would feel the same way if they promoted a Democrat and refused to interview a Republican. I think some of MSNBC's programs should be identified as opinion shows not news, and the same with Fox "News" show. At ECM, we have a different philosophy. We think you, our readers, deserve to know about all the viable candidates in a race. So for instance in high profile races such as Congress we've interviewed the two major party candidates but also candidates registered as Libertarian, Green, etc. When KPBS excluded a prominent Tea Party conservative radio show host on a major station from a primary debate claiming he wasn't viable (in the race to unseat Rep. Bilbray in Congress), we sought him out and interviewed him. Similarly we've interviewed Democrats in primaries who didn't get their party's nomination and were running as underdogs but with, perhaps, less corporate backing than the major candidate. Minority party candidates add a lot to the discussion, bringing up issues others ignore, such as Greens discussing serious threats to environmental protection laws, or Libertarians talking about invasions of our civil liberties.