Media conglomerates are hardly anything new. For as long news has existed, there have been individuals and groups keen on expanding their influence.
In the 1920s and 1930s, William Randolph Hearst began to gobble up newspapers across the country. At his height, 18 major cities across the U.S. had Hearst-owned papers, resulting in one in four American families reading Hearst reporting. From there, he proceeded absorb various other mediums of media in an effort to expand his reach and control. In turn, Hearst became a syndicated media magnate.
A pioneer of yellow-journalism — tabloid style reporting that focuses more on the sensationalism than journalistic integrity — Hearst oriented his self-guiding-compass toward greed and power instead of relentlessly pursuing the truth.
Roughly 100 years later, ‘click-bait’ has replaced yellow-journalism, and the role of Hearst is now occupied by billionaires and their ever-expanding leviathan of corporations.
Early March, a story broke that Facebook’s new initiative of supporting local journalism was faltering because the mega-corporation couldn’t find enough local news sources. Ultimately, this is a problem that it’s responsible for. Facebook released that one in three users lived in a place where Facebook couldn’t find enough sources and stories of local news for them.
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In terms of both quality of journalism and in the business approach, big corporations have killed off local news sources across the country. With the advent of social media, corporations like Facebook and Google — and even Craigslist — killed the local classified sections in papers and proceeded to change how the ad-revenue stream in media worked completely. What resulted was the decimation of newspapers from coast to coast.
This is a problem that has harmed Wisconsin as well. There are more than ten counties in Wisconsin that only have one local newspaper, and Menominee county has exactly zero. This isn’t how it’s always been. For years, local towns across the country had their own papers, and many even had multiple.
Milwaukee County even had German papers, and now they only have five papers total. And for the papers still in Wisconsin, many of them are being bought and owned by corporations such as Gannett, a large company in Virginia, who in January cut dozens of journalism jobs in across the country from their papers.
It’s a broken industry that has been ruined by capitalism’s greedy-gatekeeper.
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The local news question isn’t one that should be single-mindedly preoccupied on profitability within small media markets — it’s one on the fundamental stability of democracy. Around four in 10 Americans get their news from Facebook showing how truly pervasive the corporation is.
Facebook is absolutely polluted by misinformation, click-bait and lies trying to masquerade as news. Facebook’s algorithms and goals are all about maximizing engagement, scandalous headlines and scantily reported stories. Straight up lies are churned out at ever-remarkable speeds to get as many clicks, comments and likes as possible. That’s harmful to journalism itself.
Journalism — especially local journalism — is one of the legs that holds up democracy. For small communities across the country, a lack of local reporting and a lack of access to diverse opinions and diverse sources is causing a misinformation crisis and that is harmful for democracy.
Numerous studies have shown that a drop in local reporting and news correlates with a lower rate of civic engagement. With a drop in local news, citizens have a harder time evaluating candidates, learning policy and generally being in-touch with what’s going on in their communities.
It’s impossible to have stable national democracy on a macro scale if local democracy on a micro scale is under attack. Whether it’s a drop in candidates running, a drop in voter turnout, or just a drop in caring, the dissolving of local news at the hands of large corporations is a terrifying phenomenon.
And increasingly, for broadcast local news market, big corporations have found a way to hide behind a veneer of local reporters and anchors. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the corporation behind some 170+ local news affiliates, targets local markets with biased stories. In spring 2018, Sinclair sent out a script to its stations detailing a Trumpian line attacking the “Fake News.”
Fox47, the local Madison Fox affiliate declined to run the script, reaffirming their stance in pursuing local news for the Madison community.
But for these local communities, it’s easy to believe that these stories serve their best interests, since nearly 90 percent of Americans trust their local news sources. Viewers see friendly, recognizable local faces and assume that they’re telling the truth. That’s dangerous when the anchors are forwarding politically biased news.
Companies like Facebook and Google espouse rhetoric on how they’re going to focus on local news, and how they’re going to try to bolster journalism in general, but they’re the ones who signed and carried out the execution order. It’s a painful, frustrating and anti-democratic irony that would make even William Randolph Hearst blush.
Adam Ramer ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and history.