Big tech, on the one hand, seems like it might be triggering the massive upheaval destroying traditional media. On the other, it’s fostered homes for local, community journalism.
For indications of destruction, check out the Save Journalism Project and some of the statistics it touts: Google and Facebook control two-thirds of digital ad revenue, while five other companies control another 12 percent. That leaves just a quarter of all online ad dollars for all of the other media companies in the world, including news publishers.
And they are hurting: 1,300 communities have lost local news coverage over the past 15 years, leaving 60 percent of U.S. counties without a daily newspaper; and 32,000 newsroom employees have lost their jobs over the past decade, including some 7,200 this year.
The people leading the Save Journalism Project are two laid-off reporters – Laura Bassett, a former HuffPost culture and politics reporter, and John Stanton, a former BuzzFeed News Washington bureau chief. It feels ironic that both worked for online-only publications that would not be considered saviors of local journalism.
But they have a point. The internet represents a big pie, but a few large companies are eating most of it. That leaves less money for the people who generate original content, and it squashes innovation.
As we’ve seen here in Pittsburgh, given the opportunity, journalists and citizens will come forward with creative ideas for platforms to deliver news and local information. They still need to be paid.
In many communities, big tech is the platform for delivering local news. I think about Jacqueline Serrato, a bilingual reporter who started her own Facebook page to cover the Latino community in Chicago, quickly gaining more than 100,000 followers.
I also think about several people in McKeesport who have started their own Facebook pages since The Daily News, the local newspaper, closed in 2015.
The McKeesport and Neighboring Communities News Watch and Community Group Facebook page (the name doesn’t exactly translate into an easy brand) drew more than 19,000 members. “Since we no longer have the Daily News to keep us informed, this page can be used to post anything happening in the area,” the administrators wrote.
The founders archived the page this summer when the posts became too rancorous and led to personal attacks.
Fortunately, several other sites exist, each with about 1,000 to 1,500 members. At least three feature legit local news and updates, while one — appropriately named McKeesport News Piss an Moan — offers an outlet for complaints and humor.
Given a platform to fill the local news void, people will step forward to create their own sites to share information. None of these sites, however, pay the administrators or the people who post. Instead, all of the free content feeds back into the Facebook business model.
The people at Save Journalism want the government to break up the big tech companies to give local journalism a chance. And yet at this point, it seems hard to imagine rolling back the internet to offer print a do-over.
A few federal lawmakers came up with the Journalism Competition & Preservation Act, which would allow traditional media companies to band together to negotiate with technology firms.
A couple of academics, meanwhile, proposed that every American receive $50 from the government to spend on the media outlet of their choosing. It would be an interesting experiment to see where people, given the choice, actually would donate.
As the American Enterprise Institute points out about the Save Journalism Project, people are going to go where they want to go: If they prefer Facebook and Google for their information, they are going to turn to those places. If people really want to support local journalism, they will go to the sites that provide that information.
Recently, I spoke with a classroom of students who want to be investigative reporters, news producers, video editors, marketers and graphic designers. Asked about where they get news, several were not sure. They mentioned the Apple News app on their iPhones. They talked about Facebook and Twitter. Another brought up theSkimm, which puts out a daily email with headlines from other outlets.
A few mentioned the Post-Gazette and TribLive.com — although none of them seemed aware that the newspapers no longer print in the city every day. I guess they hadn’t noticed.
As we talked, the students came around to a revelation. Few of the sources they turn to for information actually create anything; most of them simply repackage information others have produced. Someone is creating the content they read, but they aren’t sure of — and aren’t vetting the quality of — that original source.
What happens, I asked, when no one remains to create original content? As one woman responded, you can’t re-tweet what doesn’t exist.
The answers to these challenges, I think, live in each of us. What do we value as news consumers, and now as news generators? Where are we willing to pay for content, either with our attention or with our dollars? And when no journalists are left to create original content, what are we willing to generate on our own?
It’s not enough to simply whine about big tech killing local journalism. People are going to these companies because they like what they have to offer, even if it comes at the expense of the journalists and citizens who created the original content.
We manufactured this situation. Now we must decide whether we like it — or whether we want to support local journalism. And we will have to live with the answer.
Also of note in local journalism:
Black Monday: Newspaper Guild employees plan to wear black on Monday, Sept. 30, to mark the loss of two more print days at the Post-Gazette. Starting in October, the newspaper will publish print editions only on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
“We do this because we worry about our readers not receiving the information they need,” the Guild said in a statement Monday. “Many are not inclined or equipped to switch to digital platforms. We worry about the effect on democracy because of that. We worry about where the Post-Gazette, and our community, go from here.”
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.