The Crisis in Journalism

The Crisis in Journalism

Serious studies are being done on this by reputable sources. The Pew Research Center, The Columbia Journalism Review in partnership with the TOW Center for Digital Journalism, The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, etc. Let’s “unpack” this, then, to use the common parlance, which sounds as if we all had newly arrived someplace when actually we’ve hardly budged from our homes all year, due to Covid.

A few facts. Newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers continues to plummet, falling by around half since 2008. Within each of the industries analyzed by the Bureau of Labor statistics — newspapers, broadcast television, radio, cable, and digital — notable job growth occurred only in the digital news sector; since 2008, the number of digital newsroom employees has more than doubled, from 7,400 workers to about 16,100 workers in 2019. Sinclair, the pro-Trump, arch-conservative company taking over local broadcast news across the country is doing so at a hostile, breathtakingly rapid rate. Sinclair already reaches 40 percent of households — and soon will reach 72 percent. All Sinclair affiliates air almost identical words from news anchors — in terrifying “1984” fashion. The Pew Research Center last year found that 37 percent of Americans say they frequently rely on local TV for news, not far behind the 45 percent of Americans who say they get news from Facebook, and ahead of the 33 percent who say they look at news websites and apps, the 28 percent who watch cable news, the 26 percent who watch national nightly news, and the — wait for it — only 18 percent who still read print newspapers.

Perhaps another day we’ll be able to take on the other new sources, but for now I want to focus on print media. Successive technological and economic assaults have destroyed the for-profit business model that sustained local journalism in this country for two centuries. Hundreds of news organizations, centuries-old newspapers, as well as nascent digital sites, have vanished. The traditional business model that once supported local newspapers, relying on print subscribers and advertising to generate revenue, has become difficult to sustain, as the audience for local news continues to shrink and advertising dollars disappear. Between 2000 and 2018, newspaper advertising revenue in the U.S. plummeted from over 70 billion to less than 15 billion, and over the past 15 years, the United States has lost 2100 newspapers, leaving at least 1800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 with none in 2020.

Why does the state of imperiled journalism really matter? After all, globalization, in the form of the Internet, is upon us. Why not just take our news from there?

Well, for one thing, as we’ve learned bitterly, the Internet and social media are devastatingly untrustable. Certainly there are responsible news sources online, but by far the most popular ones, like Facebook, coyly claim they are merely platforms and not publishers or news sources – although Facebook has been responsible for atrocities like those perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar as well as being a willing tool in the hands of those who assaulted Congress on January 6.

Besides, local is where we live. As newsrooms shut down across the country, good governance takes a hit, and partisanship intensifies. Coverage of provincial, state, and local, as well as municipal, politics receives decreasing public attention. The public consequently lacks the information necessary to participate in the political process. Local news crises have precipitated a general disengagement from local (small d) democratic life. As the public shifts away from local news, voter turn-out in state and in local elections falls. Communities that have lost reporters see fewer candidates running for local office, too.

And a decline in local is also national. Voters in communities that have experienced a newspaper closure are less likely to pick and choose, less likely to split their vote between the major political parties, and thus they contribute to national political polarization. With the local news struggling to survive and compete with national news for consumers’ attention, partisan reporting and coverage of national partisan conflict has come to dominate news-consumers’ diets.

The founders of this country knew all this. Remember, they were immigrants from a country (England) where Licensing Laws tightly controlled the press, both at home and for the New World Colonies.

In 1683, William Nuthead moved to Jamestown and attempted to become that colony’s first printer. Royal Governor Sir Thomas Culpeper and his council took offense to this, so he wrote to the King for guidance (remember this was before the Licensing Laws were lifted). King Charles II’s response specifically prohibited printing in Virginia. This allowed Maryland to have an operating printing office before Virginia, so Nuthead moved and set up his shop in St. Mary’s City. Virginia had to wait 47 more years before it saw its first real printer, but in 1730 William Parks, from Maryland, moved to Williamsburg to set up his printing office, and by the 1760s, Virginia had two operating printing offices. Within the 13 Colonies there were 24 weekly newspapers — all local. With so many printers throughout the Colonies satirical attacks on the government became commonplace.

Meanwhile back in England, in 1644,the first daring critique of the Licensing Laws came from the poet and agitator John Milton in his pamphlet, “Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing, to the Parliament of England.” But it wasn’t until 1694 that the Licensing Laws were repealed — and even then not without restriction, because then the Seditious Libel Law came into play, making it a crime to publish anything disrespectful of the King, State, Church or their Officers. This held true, too, for the American Colonies.

In 1734, John Peter Zenger, a printer from New York, challenged that law when he was brought up on charges of Sedition by the governor, William Cosby. His response was simply that truth is a defense against libel. Zenger won his case. Presses in both Williamsburg and Norfolk, Virginia then openly denounced the Royal Governor’s involvement in the “Gun Powder Incident,” when on April 20, 1775 in the middle of the night the governor took the Colonies’ powder. This event took place the day after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, on April 19. By September of 1775, when the press in Norfolk was seized, the Colonies were in open revolt.

Of the original 13 States’ new laws, only seven and Vermont (Vermont territory was claimed by both New York and New Hampshire but declared itself independent) considered freedom of the press important enough to write into their laws. These were: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Vermont.

But let the Framers speak for themselves.

“The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.”
John Adams

“The liberty of the press consists, . . . in publishing the truth, from good motives and for justifiable ends, though it reflect on the government, on magistrates, or individuals. If it be not allowed, it excludes the privilege of canvassing men [sic], and our rulers.”
Alexander Hamilton

“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
Benjamin Franklin (a printer himself)

And as usual, the loquacious, eloquent Thomas Jefferson:

“To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

“The only security of all is in a free press.”

This blog will be off next week and return the week after