Wednesday, 8 July 2020
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Growing danger of news deserts and ghosts

Frank Hampson has witnessed many radical changes in the news industry since tapping out his first story on a manual typewriter more than 60 years ago. During 27 years with the Gold Coast Bulletin he pioneered a breakthrough in the paper’s reporting as a member of the Queensland Parliamentary Press Gallery. He was also a correspondent for major newspapers in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and wrote for national magazines. But the media world he knew is no more. And this is a story he says he writes only because it deserves to be read. 

In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge was haunted by ghosts. Now much the same thing is happening in the media industry.

Scrooge-like cost-cutting decisions have been blamed for turning thousands of communities in the USA into ‘news deserts’ or decimating the staffing and function of local newspapers to the extent that they become inept ghosts of their former selves.

It’s all part of a world-wide scenario in which newspapers are in danger of  becoming the communication dinosaurs of the 21st century - extinction looming for many as their feeding grounds are swallowed up by the Internet.

It’s a commercial cyberspace in which as much as 75% of the digital advertising dollars are reported to be going to Facebook and Google.

Media researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) say independent, family-owned newspapers can be particularly susceptible to losing their advertising in this way, and eventually their identities when they are forced to shut-down or sell-out to corporate chains.

And this could have a disastrous impact on small communities, for which local communication networks are the nerve centre of everyday life.

They found that in 1997, half of all weeklies in the USA were independent. But by 2018, fewer than one-third of the weeklies in the UNC database, with circulations under 15,000, were independent or locally owned. 

Also, more than 2,000 urban and rural communities had lost more than 500 newspapers with average circulations of roughly 4,000.

Their small populations made them unattractive to advertisers outside their communities. And inside those communities, the supportive ‘shop local’ message of their newspapers went unheeded by those same local businesses, as they reduced their advertising support for their home-town papers. 

In exchange, those businesses chose to promote themselves on social media platforms ‘to the global market’ with the result that their customer ‘reach’ was limited to far less numbers than those reached by the local newspaper.

Some of the reactions to the loss of the local newspapers, the researchers reported:

In Kansas, The Signal - a local paper for Baldwin City (pop 4,600) - was shut down after its circulation dropped from 1,700 in 2004, to 200 in 2015. Its closure prompted complaints that there was no one to cover meetings of the city council and school board, and high school, university, and other community activities. 

In Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington DC, The Gazette, a part of local life for 55 years, survived a 1990s takeover by changing to a free paper, but failed to survive a second takeover in 2015, prompting one resident to comment: “There are activities in our town that nobody can really convey to each other anymore when you lose that vehicle for getting the news out.” 

In California, when the 140-year-old, twice-weekly Gridley Herald (circ 500) in the county of Butte was suddenly closed on August 30, 2018, a disappointed reader said: “You lose a community when you don’t have a newspaper.” 

The UNC researchers say as newspapers vanish and readers drop off, an increasing number of Americans are left in communities without a reliable and comprehensive source of news.

And they warn: “There are hundreds, if not thousands of communities at risk of becoming isolated news deserts.”

They point to the difficulties in receiving information for 1,749 communities that had lost weeklies over the past 15 years. 

“Weeklies are often the only sources of very local news and information in communities - large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural,” they say. 

“These shuttered weeklies ranged in size from the San Francisco Independent, with free distribution of almost 400,000, to the Sudan Beacon News in Texas, with a circulation of only 300.”

For many, this switch away from newspapers to the abridged news services of radio or television news, or more popularly social media, may not seem problematic.

They may think it’s generally the same news and it takes up less of their time to absorb it.

But, as Canadian singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, observed in her 1970 hit Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve missed ‘till it’s gone …”

And what has gone or is in danger of going for many people - in Australia as well as America - is news of what has happened, is happening, or is going to happen around their own streets and neighbourhoods. 

That’s community news, not the sort of chit-chat gossip you may find on social media. 

It is news and pictures about local school events and students, social and service clubs, chambers of commerce, business successes, farming and agricultural developments, country shows, tourism ventures, festivals, art and other cultural activities, local sports teams and personalities - their lows and successes, their activities at home, or away in other cities, states or countries. 

And, of course, the kind of detailed reports on local weather events such as floods and bushfires, that are not covered by mainstream media. 

It is also editorials, opinions, columns, features about the otherwise lost history of an area, its projected growth, its politics, and much more.

And it is news about council rezonings, parking restrictions, new by-laws, increases to fees or charges, new developments or buildings, new quarries, new poultry farms … proposals that may impact on your lifestyle.

Yet, in Queensland, local authorities need only publish details of some of these issues through an advertisement in the local paper; and, where appropriate, an outdoor sign placed near the location of a project.

Where a community newspaper vanishes, so too, does this local advice - the advert being placed in the closest paper, which usually means one in a distant city.

Council press releases, in the absence of independent analyses and questioning by local journalists, can be simple propaganda vehicles seeking to put a positive spin on a proposal that may be more beneficial to the local authority or business interests than its ratepayers.

More disturbingly, as the UNC researchers pointed out, there was evidence that curtailment of local government reporting could open the gates to wasteful spending and create a breeding ground for corruption.

But good local journalism sees, knows, cares and seeks to protect the local community.

However, the researchers say, not all newspapers are vanishing into news deserts. Instead, many weeklies or small dailies, in city, suburban or rural areas, become ghosts when they are bought by bigger dailies or news groups. 

As their news-gathering operations are gutted and merged with the larger groups, the once stand-alone weeklies either disappear or are reduced to free-distribution shopper or lifestyle speciality publications - mere shells of what they once were.

They may still be visible by their titles in their communities. But they are not active. They are not recorders of news. They are not community guardians. They are ghosts.  

Duke University investigated how successfully the news vacuum they had left behind might have been replaced by other sources. Its researchers analysed more than 16,000 news stories provided by 100 randomly selected communities in one week.

They found that fewer than half of news stories provided to a typical community were produced by a local media outlet, and only 17 percent were about the community or events that took place there. 

All of this is becoming a familiar story in Queensland and other States with various big news organisations shuffling the pack of Australia’s news minnows as they strive to get a better deal for their ailing budgets. 

Examples affecting South-East Queensland have been the former Fairfax Media takeover of regional and community papers, followed last year by the Nine Entertainment merger with Fairfax, that swallowed up those same newspapers. 

Mergers such as these commonly result in the smaller papers being gradually stripped of staff with their office and building assets sold to reduce debt.

Then, last May, Nine sold its regional and community newspapers for $115 million, offloading about 170 titles acquired last year in its merger with Fairfax Media.

In the same month, News Corp opted out of the community and regional print newspaper market and sold its 50.1% stake in the Community Newspaper Group to Seven West Media. Earlier it had closed two Quest titles in Queensland and announced it would be shutting down the print operation on a Leader title in Victoria.

The result of this trend towards a vanishing media or ghost newspapers is a dramatic cut in staffing numbers – and a greater reliance on grabbing ‘click bait’ news from the social internet.

Without the staff or time to fact-check this source of information the publication of ‘fake news’ is inevitable – the kind that was exposed in the ABC’s Media Watch program on Monday.

It was a story in which an Australian couple, quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess anchored off Japan, boasted how they had managed to order a crate of their favourite wine from their wine club and have it sent to Japan and delivered to their ship by drone.

However, when contacted by Media Watch, the couple laughed with glee at a joke that had tricked the Australian and world media.

I found it unbelievable, though, that any journalist worth their salt could believe such a spurious story. Unfortunately, the unbelievable is commonplace in today’s news media. 

And news media that thrive on this kind of lie will die by the lie.