Whether we go back in time to examine America a century ago or just the one we live in today, one truth is clear: Small news outlets have always been pushed aside in favor of bigger papers, which has funneled the country’s attention toward a limited point of view. Historically, newspapers rose to prominence during the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) because of “yellow journalism,” a style of reporting where news stories were exaggerated rather than purely factual (“U.S. Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895–1898”). Publishers used the fortunes their papers generated to buy up smaller papers and eliminate their competition, also known as media consolidation (“‘Let Munsey Kill It!’: The Birth of the Newspaper Chain”). The American public was mainly exposed to the political biases of a select few outlets, allowing the ones in power to sway public opinion while leaving independent news in the dust (Smythe). Presently, a decrease in revenue and an increase in newspaper chains have seen local news outlets disappearing left and right (Lutz). Large chains have dropped coverage of small-town stories in favor of national stories that carry a political slant as well (Andrews). The lack of diverse reporting presented to us when reading the news is a social injustice that calls for immediate action, both on an individual and federal level.
Before this project, I’d always been someone who wanted to stay “in the know” about the U.S., but I often felt bombarded by the never-ending (and repetitive) news cycle. I knew news outlets across the country were closing down, but I hadn’t put much thought into it. It wasn’t until my dad shared an article with me about the rise of local government corruption caused by the lack of local news that I understood what the issue was: I had only been reading a Democrat or Republican’s opinion of nation-wide news, and I was completely uninformed about local politics. It was unnerving to realize that fewer and fewer news outlets were covering local news as well, resulting in politicians being able to exploit their power. This sparked my interest in negative political effects of media consolidation as a whole, because I wanted to learn what other stories weren’t being told.
You can read my full personal interest essay here.
What You Need To Know:
During the newspaper boom of the Progressive Era, media consolidation’s impact could mostly be seen in the influence of the “consolidators” rather than the mass closure of the papers that were consolidated. Frank A. Munsey, editor of newspapers such as Munsey’s Magazine was notorious for buying and killing off plenty small outlets (“‘Let Munsey Kill It!’: The Birth of the Newspaper Chain”), and William Randolph Hearst was known for using yellow journalism to shape the Spanish-American War, known as the first “press-driven war” (“Crucible Of Empire : The Spanish-American War – PBS Online”). If you’re interested in reading more about how media “consolidators” built up their empires and their influence over the American people, you can read my full historical problem essay here.
If you’re curious to see an example of yellow journalism, the image of the New York Journal below is a great example of sensationalism (“Yellow Journalism”). Shortly before the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898, a U.S. naval ship, called “the Maine,” likely sunk due to faulty design (Schneider). However, as you can see on the front page of the paper, the Journal blamed the sinking on the Spanish, calling it “the work of an enemy” (“Yellow Journalism”).
Unlike the media moguls of the 20th century, the biggest news media chains of today dominate the industry mostly because they are the only ones left. Since 2004, more than 900 local news outlets shut down, and have left areas of the country without any local coverage (Kennedy, “A New Study…”). The affected areas are called “news deserts” (Murphy). There are a few contributing factors to the rise of news deserts, including a lack of funding and the public’s fear of fake news (Hollis). When it comes to trust, a 2016 Gallup poll showed that a mere 20% of Americans trusted the news to tell the truth (Hollis). The population is also not buying their neighborhood newspapers nearly as much anymore, leading the number of local papers bought in the past 15 years to drop by 30% (Murphy). Additionally, less than one in five citizens are paying for news (“Most Americans Think Their Local News Media Are Doing Well Financially”), and newspapers’ advertising revenue has dropped by more than 67% since 2005, with cable news’ ad revenue down by 17% (“Most Americans Think…”). Advertisers are taking their business to free online advertising sites instead of to small news outlets, also known as the “Craigslist effect” (Seamans and Zhu 266). Eventually, the outlets can no longer compete and end up bankrupt. Of course, the hundreds of news journals going out of business comes with an unintended consequence; local government corruption (Murphy).
So how have news companies tried to combat this? Some outlets have become non-profits to stay afloat. Companies must seek permission from the IRS to become non-profits, and if that status is granted, they’re able to fund their business through federal grants and tax-exempt donations (Kennedy, “Can Nonprofit Ownership…”). However, the non-profit status is far from a perfect answer for the press, as most papers end up relying on one big donor to survive. Because of this, outlets are also inclined to soften criticism of said donor, for fear of support being pulled. This status is also not always the best fit for heavily-political papers, as being a non-profit bars them from endorsing political candidates (Kennedy, “Can Nonprofit Ownership…”). If these papers would choose to remain subscription-based, they’d run into the same problem as before: People prefer free news. Overall, non-profits have the potential to make more money than charging readers, but it is not a realistic cure-all.
Besides non-profits, media consolidation is once again both part of the reason for small news’ downfall and often their only option. As seen in the infographic on the left, 90% of the media went from being controlled by 50 companies in 1983 to six companies in 2011 (Frugal Dad). It has been especially easy for chains to buy local TV stations since the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) lifted the “main studio rule,” which required companies to own a studio in every station’s broadcasting area (Martin and McCrain 374). Without the “main studio rule,” it became much cheaper for news chains to broadcast while detaching local channels from their communities much more (374). In fact, Sinclair, the nation’s largest owner of local TV news, is the prime example of a news media chain reinforcing the issues that originally caused the decline of smaller outlets (Andrews). An American Political Science Review study in 2019 found that Sinclair’s ownership created a right-wing reporting bias (Martin and McCrain 380), and increased their coverage of national politics by 25% at the expense of local stories (Andrews). As the government loosens their guidelines on media consolidation, and as media empires grow larger each day, the news we read becomes more inauthentic. Whether the inauthenticity manifests in partisan bias or the neglect of small-town stories, there is a lack of honesty in our newsfeed today. Truly, the issue with media consolidation lies not just with the stories that are shoved down our throats, but also with the ones that never get seen at all.
You can read my full present-day problem essay here.
Micro Solution Steps: All You Know Is What You Read In The Papers
However you support local news, whether by donating a dollar, or volunteering an hour of your time to the press, it still means you have given something greater than there was before.
1. Subscribe to local news. If you are passionate enough to take action to keep your neighborhood journalist in business, you should practice what you preach, and read your local news. Do your research and pick (at least) one trusted paper to subscribe to and to share with your friends. Find a non-profit outlet you love as well, and donate to them what you can.
2. Volunteer. When reading the news is not enough, you can help run it! Organizations like the Banyan Project provide funding to kickstart papers in news deserts across the country. Ways to get involved with them include; donating money, starting a/working at a Banyan news cooperative nearby, and (given enough experience) writing articles for them (“Get Involved”).
3. Lobbying. Lobbying groups centered around the media aim to pass laws restricting large media chains. It is usually a long process, but this is where the individual can create the most change. The Free Press encourages you to call your lawmakers, write letters to nearby newspaper editors, and much more. They are also suing the FCC for relaxing media consolidation laws, which you can support through donations or on social media (“Media Consolidation”).
Macro Solution Steps: The Government’s Helping Hand
1. Federal funding to stop fake news. Since fake news and the fear of it is so prevalent, identifying bias and falsities in articles as soon as possible would restore some of the public support of the media. A journal article published by The Cyber Defense Review proposes a computer program that analyzes the linguistics of news stories and evaluates it on a scale between the story being taken completely out of context and missing key facts, and so exaggerated that the story’s original message has really shifted (Sample, et al.). The study points out that the computer would have a hard time adapting to slang, and with government grants and the help of linguists and social scientists, a program such as this one could help us cope with fake news (Sample, et al.).
2. Tighten FCC guidelines. Trying to ban media consolidation altogether would do more harm than good by deserting struggling outlets, but tightening the FCC’s weak rules surrounding media consolidation would keep a select few companies from flooding the industry with only their opinions. Reinstating laws such as the ‘main studio rule’ in small towns, as mentioned earlier, would encourage regional coverage while having the physical presence of a local news channel (Martin and McCrain 374).
3. Increase non-profit newspaper federal grants. Since some newspaper are more successful as non-profits, it would benefit the entire country for these papers to be generously supported by the government. When more and more journalists can be employed, there can be far greater coverage of town halls, political rallies, city and state government, and so on.
When news stations of every size and opinion thrive, all of us thrive too. As we face a new decade full of new challenges, being informed has never been more important. By taking action through these steps, we can make sure local news stays alive.
You can check out my full works cited here.
I would love to hear your feedback on my project and about the local news you read. Were you aware of massive newspaper closures before clicking onto this site? Do you think my solution steps are feasible? If you read the news, what is your favorite local/regional news outlet? How do you fact-check your news?