Don Rogers: Water for the news desert
February 8, 2019
Google and Facebook are throwing money at programs to bolster local news, not unlike U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. Good luck.
But there is something they could do to actually help, and at a bargain, too: Contract directly with local news media to fund reporters and continue feeding their networks. This would be a win-win investment by that coldest of assessments, the business itself.
Local news media's problem isn't a lack of viewers. The Union, for instance, has as many or more readers than ever. They simply are changing how they read from print to online.
It's more nuanced at the lake. We found last year we needed to increase the print run for the weekly Sierra Sun to keep the newsstands from running out too fast. The Sun's online traffic is growing, too.
Our online readership gains are to Facebook and Google's business advantage. We provide their audiences material to mull and chew on, and posting our reports on social media often enough breaks those ugly cycles of rumor and gossip. Interrupting a great tall tale with facts isn't always appreciated, by the way. But it does move the civic discussion forward.
We also foot the bill, the whole bill, for the journalism, which despite jokes and perhaps your snorts, really is a high calling. Not that all the journalists always live up to the ideal. But I see my colleagues in Grass Valley and Truckee going full bore and taking their work seriously.
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Unfortunately for us, our business model in print, primarily from advertising, doesn't translate as you might think to online. Instead Google and Facebook glean the bulk of the digital advertising dollars that otherwise would come to us to fund the journalism. Sweet deal for them, while it lasts.
Their grants, technical help and think tanky stuff won't do much to solve the problem — for us today and soon enough for them. For all their help, they've taken away the ability for local news media to transform into viable digital operations.
Now, at last, this has become widely existential for local news businesses, including ours.
If this shift were akin to the horse and buggy giving way to superior transportation, namely automobiles, this would be good even if that sucked for us. But it's not. Actual journalism has become less affordable while the big tech "platforms" profit from the audience through straightforward means, along with the personal data collection and use that critics find more sinister.
The United States has around 25 percent fewer journalists than a decade ago, and the front lines — newspaper newsrooms — have eroded by half. At the same time online sites have proliferated. Mostly, those are aggregators and advocates, some assuredly Russian. Opinion sites, I mean, not producing news but aiming to pass for the real thing.
In any case, the math doesn't work so well for our society with fewer actual journalists and far more material mistaken as journalism. You won't see these commentators at local fire scenes or town hall meetings or municipal chambers, nor all the other places local reporters still go.
Nearly 2,000 papers and their associated websites have closed in the past 14 years, according to the University of North Carolina's School of Media and Journalism. The country is beginning to blister with news deserts and consequences the electrified grapevines can't solve. Research shows, for example, taxes and municipal costs rise where local government goes uncovered.
Our region is far from immune. The Sacramento Bee, for all its brave buzz about transitioning to digital, is hollowing out. Same with the Reno Gazette-Journal. The Auburn Journal didn't shift from five print editions a week to two a little over a year ago because everything was going just great. Same with our sister paper at Nevada's state capital, Carson City, which last summer went from six editions a week to two.
The business model is shattering as revenue that would support local news instead flows to … Google and Facebook, who wish only to be tech platforms and not publishers.
With the money should come responsibility, though. This era of ticks bleeding the dog dry is on course to end badly for society, not just news organizations.
Jokes aside, the local papers don't do fake. We labor through the discipline of journalism to learn the truth, or at least as close as the available evidence and human discernment will lead. We don't have interests other than getting the story right, promptly and fair. It's a high bar, but my colleagues do an amazing job despite all the obstacles thrown at them.
Of course, this is just how I see it, and working at newspapers across the country for the past three decades certainly shapes my view.
I love the work, the people and mission even knowing we practice this most human of disciplines imperfectly. Sometimes I feel the way about journalism that Winston Churchill observed about democracy being the worst form of governance except for all the others.
Our chances of seeing something other than democracy go way up if the business of funding journalism can't be fixed. Pointing to Afghanistan might be going a bit far, but perhaps isn't so outlandish as it might sound.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.