April 11, 2018

Local Journalism Imperiled

Pub Notes

Engraved by Joseph Swain from an Illustration by John Tenniel / Punch

By now we’ve all been properly horrified to learn that Sinclair Broadcast Group recently forced news anchors at all its nearly 200 television stations nationwide to mouth a statement about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news plaguing our country.” The statement also cried with alarm at the danger to a democracy caused by fake news. Sinclair is coincidentally awaiting approval from the federal government for the purchase of 40 more TV stations. Doesn’t hurt to show them which side you’re on.

Some of those Sinclair stations are affiliated with fair-and-balanced Fox News, and anyone who listens to our local radio monopoly understands what Sinclair means by one-sided news.

Sinclair’s executive chairman spelled it out in an email to New York magazine: “The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility.”

Now, wait a minute. The print media includes the Athens Banner-Herald, and I do not believe they deserve to be characterized as left wing. There are probably some other print publications like, say, National Review, that also express a conservative view from time to time.

The Sinclair chairman is obviously taking his cue from the media-basher-in-chief by throwing print media under the bus while demonstrating that his own medium is on board for making America great again. The real problem with print media, of course, is not that it is monolithically liberal, but that it is being bought out all over the country just like television stations. Newspaper chains and venture capitalists have seized on daily and even weekly newspapers as opportunities for “vulture” capitalism—buy them, cut the payroll to the quick, suck out the remaining assets, sell the buildings, the presses, the parking lots—and discard them to the bottom-feeders.

GateHouse is the chain that recently bought the Banner-Herald from the entity formerly known as the Morris Corporation. The Morrises had already cannibalized their own holdings. Here in Athens they had sold the Morrisoleum and the printing presses, and they had cut the staff to the bone and then into the very marrow, and then sold the Banner-Herald, along with their entire chain, for less than they paid for one newspaper back in the high-rolling days.

GateHouse has its work cut out for it in finding more value to extract from the B-H, but they are apparently experts. The Morrises overlooked the biggest salary of all: the publisher. GateHouse got rid of him and doesn’t need to replace him, since a sort of regional publisher will manage the local paper from afar. I mean, what do chain publishers do, anyway, except enforce orders from headquarters? They do play golf, though, and all those local contacts at the club will be lost. Maybe the regional publisher can get by for a game often enough that he doesn’t have to be re-introduced to his foursome.

Believe it or not, the downward spiral of the local daily has worked a hardship on Flagpole. We are, after all, an alternative newspaper, and as long as the B-H had the town covered, we could pick and choose and snipe from the sidelines. All of a sudden, the daily doesn’t even have a local government reporter, and we’re the only game in town. Blake Aued no longer has the luxury of being the scruffy voice of alternative Athens; he’s now forced to be the scruffy reporter of record, trying to cover the whole town—the ACC commission, the planning commission, the school board, the elections, along with all the spot news that pops up in the course of every week. This means covering all those meetings and conducting interviews and checking facts and staying in touch with sources, as well as writing the stories and managing freelance writers. If we were not ourselves a struggling newspaper—even though locally owned—we could expand into the vacuum left by the daily. As it is, all we can do is expand Blake’s work week and try to ignore his scowls.

And remember, this is local news, where it’s hard to fake it. This local news provides a reliable context for local advertising, too, because it’s trusted by local readers. Without local news, anything can be called fair and balanced, liberal or conservative, fact or fiction. Local news provides the context for local community. It’s just not the same when it’s phoned in from out of town.