When I moved to Elizabeth City to take over management of our family owned radio station, one of my first initiatives was to hire a full-time local newsperson.
The rookie newsman attended the local school board meeting his first week. The morning after the meeting, the superintendent of schools called to ask why our newsperson was there. I told him we were starting local daily newscasts and wanted to report on school board meetings.
Somewhat surprised, the superintendent asked why we couldn’t just report them the same way the local newspaper did: “The morning after each meeting, I call Bessie at the Daily Advance and tell her what happened.”
I responded I was certain his call was detailed and accurate, but we thought it better to be there in person, to be sure we reported the “who, what, when, where, how and why,” the five pillars of journalism. The next month, Bessie showed up at the board meeting in person.
Do you know what transpired at the last county commissioners’ meeting? How about the last School Board meeting? Or with the chamber, civic clubs or churches? We are less informed today than we were 10 years ago, and the main reason for it is because our local news sources are drying up. Specifically, our local newspapers and radio.
The Northwestern University MeDill School of Journalism released a study in June reporting that two newspapers are shutting down every week in the United States. More than 2,500 have gone dark in the past two decades. Why?
Three primary explanations help explain the obituaries.
First, there have been decades of intense and deliberate efforts to discredit the news media, especially by conservatives who constantly shout that papers are liberally biased. They don’t think they can get coverage, so their best option is to discredit papers altogether. The loud and persistent attack against news credibility has caused a drop in readership and subscriptions.
There has been and is now some bias in news reporting, generally more slanted to the left. But not everything and not all news reporting is biased. It is our right to sometimes criticize, but let’s not “throw out the baby with the bath water.” In legitimate news outlets, some editor vetted (researched) a story and approved it before it went to press. There’s far more value than bias in reputable news outlets.
The second explanation is the meteoric increase in viewership on the Internet and social media.
“Nowadays, anyone with a laptop is a wannabe journalist,” Michael Smerconish recently remarked on CNN. However, what you read or hear on social media is not just biased, a large portion is just plain untrue. What confounds me is the number of friends who regularly cite as gospel stuff they saw online. They doubt their local newspaper, which is subject to libel, slander and wrongful reporting laws, but willingly accept stuff from people they don’t know citing facts they don’t substantiate.
Advertisers know what their potential customers are following. Ad dollars to newspapers have plummeted because so many have migrated to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and other platforms. The vacuum of revenues has affected all papers, often diminishing the revenues needed to pay reporters to cover local news. You and I suffer when newsrooms are deserted.
And if you think we are better for the loss of credible local news sources, let me respectfully disagree. Again, quoting the MeDill report, “Most of the communities that have lost newspapers do not get a print or digital replacement, leaving 70 million residents, or one-fifth of the country’s population either living in an area with no local news organization, or one at risk.”
How are we to get reputable (even if sometimes a bit biased) news? I am encouraged by some nonprofit groups like The Assembly, Carolina Public Press, NC Local, Free Press or the consortium of 22 for-profit newspapers funding philanthropic partnerships like NC Watchdog Reporting Network and The North Carolina News Collaborative; they understand the importance of local news and are trying to fill the huge vacuum. They are worthy of your financial support.
Here’s my spin: Thomas Jefferson reportedly said that an informed electorate is the cornerstone of a democracy. Without trustworthy information, we cannot make good decisions as consumers, as citizens, professionals, and most especially at the ballot box. You may not agree with all you read or hear from your local news outlet, but you are better off with reputable news reporting as opposed to the talking entertainers on cable outlets posing as news people or the obviously slanted social media and partisan sponsored sites. Legitimate sources put their opinions on editorial pages, not as opinions posing as news articles.
Being informed means it is up to you and me to read, discern and verify legitimate news sources from posers. We face big issues, and we cannot and will not solve then just by depending on politicians, managers, social media or politically sponsored partisan outlets to inform us.
The Washington Post is spot on: Democracy dies in darkness.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at email@example.com.