We here in Park County are pretty lucky. More and more communities across the country — more than 1,300 — have no local news coverage at all, much less a couple sources competing with each other to produce great news.
I’ll let the readers decide who’s winning that competition, since I’m rather biased on the subject.
I started my career in journalism just as newspapers were closing in the wake of impacts from the internet. At the time, I believed, as most did, that the industry was just going through a change. Once it found its digital footing, a new, online normal would rise from the detritus of print journalism.
Prior to working at the Tribune, I had a stint at a free, all-digital news service. I came into it with a lot of ambition and outright zeal. I was determined to produce free online news that would rival the local paper, which I believed was clinging to a dying business model. They were Blockbuster, and we were Netflix.
I now think this view has some serious flaws. One of the first things I discovered about digital news is there’s no limit to the number of ads you can sell online, unlike print advertising, which is limited by space on the page. In order to keep the advertising revenues flowing, you needed to build the content around the ads. It puts the cart before the horse.
And you need a large amount of content throughout the day to keep the traffic flowing, so you can show advertisers you have an audience.
This creates a very strong quantity-over-quality incentive. To reach our content requirements, we often rewrote press releases or did the most cursory reporting just to fill the stream up. Very little reporting I did during my time there had any real substance.
And for digital news readers, more depth probably wouldn’t matter anyways. The first 200 words of a story might be all they’re going to read. Studies show readers online tend to skim and jump around, and they’re constantly distracted by links and ads. Readers of print consume news in a much more linear way, and they have a much higher rate of comprehension and retention of the information they consume.
As more news publications push their digital offerings, the industry has been in a death spiral. The bulk of revenues still comes from print advertising, but the industry has been committed to find a way to make the online platform work. In turn, newspapers cut staff. The number of jobs in journalism is half what it was 10 years ago. That has led to inferior news products, and rising subscription costs asks readers to pay more for less value. Readers cancel subscriptions, and newspapers close.
Print news is dying, but not because anything better is replacing it. Ironically, Facebook attempted to support local news with a new service that reposts content from local news outlets, governments and community groups. But the company recently announced that about 40 percent of the cities in which it was launched don’t have enough local news content to support the service.
There’s a bigger issue at stake here: Our democracy is becoming less informed.
A 2018 study found local governments in counties with newspaper closures saw increases in borrowing costs. The authors speculate that without a watchdog keeping an eye on elected officials, local governments become inefficient, with higher debt levels, higher public employee wages and unnecessary staff. In turn, lenders rate the entity as more risky and charge more for the service.
The authors also found high internet usage in these counties did not impact the borrowing costs. So, digital news probably isn’t filling the void left by closed newspapers.
Histories of great democracies are full of uninformed voters, but that’s always been by choice. Americans, especially in rural territories where most newspapers are vanishing, are finding it harder to become informed, even when they want to be.
Another study found when newspapers close, the community becomes more polarized. Without local coverage, voters view local issues and candidates through the lens of national news, which tends to be filled with much more partisan conflict and polarized rhetoric.
Perhaps a reason Powell tends to be a friendly place is because it has a newspaper treating local issues fairly and reasonably, so people aren’t at each other’s throats when disagreements arise.
The situation may look bleak, but I’m an optimist. People become very aware of what they lost when it’s gone. Communities without newspapers will see greater amounts of unwise spending on their tax bills, and more corruption scandals will break long after anyone can do anything about it. In turn, a demand for quality community news will recreate the lost supply.