Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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Jayne: Lucky to have local news outlet

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

We are fortunate in Clark County. We are lucky to have a local media outlet that has been family run for more than a century.

Of course, I might be biased; I work for that company. But as a report last week from “60 Minutes” reminded us: We are fortunate.

Newspapers have been under attack from market forces for the past two decades or so. First, the internet virtually killed the sector of classified ads; why look in the newspaper for local garage sales when you can find them online? Classified ads used to provide a huge chunk of newspapers’ revenue.

Then, online behemoths such as Google and Facebook came to dominate the advertising market. When they can digitally target ads to the consumers most likely to be interested in a particular product, it makes sense for retailers to take advantage of that targeting.

Those issues are part of a changing market. These things happen, and newspapers and other impacted industries need to adjust.

That is different from another issue that harms newspapers. Online companies frequently post teasers drawing readers to a particular article, but the links don’t go to the organization that produced that story. They go to an article that has been cut-and-pasted by the outlet that posted the link.

The outlet that did the work reporting and writing the news doesn’t get credit for a web hit, which helps drive advertising prices. That is the simplistic explanation, but it is theft and it is a huge issue for the news industry. Congress is considering ways to remedy this, and it should act quickly.

But I digress. The point of the “60 Minutes” story — “Headlines. Deadlines. Bottom lines.” — was about hedge funds purchasing local newspapers and then gutting newsrooms and news-gathering resources.

The combination of these factors has led to a 57 percent job loss in the newspaper industry since 2008.

You might or might not think that’s a problem. Goodness knows, there are plenty of people who agreed with Donald Trump when he called the press “the enemy of the people.” For me, that makes me wonder why Trump didn’t want people to know what he was doing as president; but for his supporters, I guess, ignorance is bliss.

But the point is that there is a world of difference between local newspapers and the cable outlets or social media that too often pass for news these days. CNN, for example, isn’t going to report on the Vancouver City Council, and that council has more impact on our daily lives than whoever is in the White House.

As a former Chicago Tribune reporter says about the decline of local journalism: “This is an attack on our democracy. Local and regional newspapers are so important to our communities, to holding our leaders accountable.”

Various studies have shown that when local reporting shrinks, corruption grows. The “60 Minutes” report uses the example of Bell, Calif., where the local paper closed.

“The elected officials just kept voting themselves pay raises, to the point where the city manager was making $800,000, just because there was no one there,” one media expert says. “Pretty much through all of human history and throughout the world, when you have power that isn’t watched, it tends to get abused.”

Which seems like a good time for a reminder of our favorite Thomas Jefferson quote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

All of this is essential to our democracy. But a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina found that 1,300 communities had lost local news coverage in the previous 15 years. These news deserts create a vacuum that is quickly filled by threats to our democracy.

In Clark County, we have a newspaper that has been owned by a local family for more than 100 years, rather than a hedge fund or a vast newspaper chain.

Like I said, we are fortunate.