You may or may not have seen summaries of a report by PEN America called “Losing the News,” circulating on social media sites. One of the most popular breakdowns of the non-profit literature advocacy group’s study on local newspapers appeared in the New York Times.
The future appears grim.
“The story is familiar: a local rural business collapses after losing its battle with a national corporation from a distant city,” PEN America trustee Ayad Akhtar begins in an introductory letter.
I wouldn’t say that the Headliner News is collapsing, but we aren’t exactly the most loved business in Christian County either. For far too long, many upstanding cities in many a local community operated with the assumption that their local newspaper would always be there, that it would be impossible for it to fail.
Yet, newspapers across the United States are failing. For those of you who still find newspapers to be reliable and for the most part, trustworthy, we thank you.
“Because newspapers still provide the majority of original local reporting in communities, their evisceration robs the American public of trusted sources of critical information about health, education, elections, and other pressing local issues,” the study found.
We are in a unique situation in Christian County, serving what many consider to be a bedroom community for Springfield. There are a minority of residents, however, who are engaged in the dealings of the communities they live in, which allows us to sometimes take a more hometown-based approach to our work.
“Many of the communities traditionally underserved by legacy local media—communities of color, low-income communities, and communities in rural areas—are those most affected by its decline,” the researchers found when examining a downward trend in newspaper subscriptions.
Further from Springfield, there are “news deserts,” places where the hometown newspaper serves as the lone beacon of insight, coverage and crucial information for citizens in an otherwise unserved place. Ozark, Nixa and the surrounding towns are close enough to Springfield to occasionally draw interest from the news outlets there, but our job at the Headliner News is to give you more depth and range than those outlets can provide. As the media companies cut the budgets for the Springfield outlets more and more, I predict you’ll be seeing those journalists less and less.
Here is a rant I’ve been on several times now on this very opinion page, “People don’t want to pay to read the news.” This debate is incredibly tired. I wouldn’t expect anyone on our staff—of which there are fewer and fewer—to show up and do this work for free. Yet, people don’t want to pay to read our work. They are happy to consume it for nothing, however.
Soon enough, they will get what they paid for—nothing.
The PEN America study suggests some solutions, which I find to be workable and also completely impractical.
“Legislators and regulators must ensure that technology companies fairly compensate local outlets for the journalism they produce, which including levying an ad revenue tax on platforms like Facebook and Google to fund local watchdog reporting,” the researchers wrote.
The Missouri Press Association recently fought throughout the 2019 session of the Missouri General Assembly to keep legal advertising—a staple of any county seat weekly newspaper in the state— in print. I don’t think there is any way we could ever convince lawmakers to pass ad revenue tax reform.
Then comes an even more unlikely solution.
“Given the scope and scale of the problem, a solution is unlikely without dramatically expanding public funding for local journalism, through either reform and expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the creation of a new national endowment for journalism,” the researchers suggest.
In a time when just about anyone you talk to on the street is sick of taxes, and proposals to cut funding for entities like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio fly around freely all day every day, I don’t like the odds for a new publicly-funded (that means tax) endowment for journalism being created.
The future appears grim.