Since we’ve started sheltering in place, I’ve been spending time thinking about a two-tiered problem we are facing right now with coronavirus coverage.
Let’s start with the second tweet, which has Tapper sketching out the ongoing feud between the White House and the national press corps that reports from DC. The feud, of course, is nothing new even as it has escalated since President Trump took office. But embedded in Tapper’s tweet is something important about sourcing.
“That’s not what the doctors and nurses from all over the country are saying.”
If you understand how our news system is set up, you can spot the issue. Tapper is not commenting on anything his national colleagues are reporting directly, or at least at any kind of real volume. At best, they are aggregating through consumption and adding some original footwork, aggregation from reading the work done by their journalist peers all over the U.S.
Local newspapers would once have competed alongside some of those larger players, offering a complementary view of local and national news. In the good old days, you could add to that the TV and Associated Press layers, and local communities once several ways to both get information and feed local news to bubble up to national eyes (the AP, in particular, had a robust model for turning local news statewide via its wire for subscribing news outlets). But as newsroom cuts have become more savage, choice has dwindled even as access to a wider range of news online has grown. Many local communities have access to only one local print source if they have that at all anymore.
Far more than was the case 40 years ago, our news system is fragmented and feudal. Large regional newspapers and TV stations serving major markets have reach, but their resources have dwindled and their focus has turned more toward their epicenter.
National outlets once had the resources and staffing to be in a lot of places, and they too competed with local and state/regional reporters. But these aren’t the glory days of the ’80s, when national outlets had bureaus all over the country that could do state and regional reporting (Tapper’s own CNN was barely a dot on the media landscape during that time).
So when Tapper speaks of the ongoing war between the White House and the national press, it’s important to see the vector of that information flow. Local news is producing coverage that runs counter to the administration narrative that all is fine, that tests are plentiful, that masks and ventilators are abundant. There is no credible way for Tapper or any other White House reporter to credibly challenge that sentiment (and let’s be honest, it’s propaganda) without facts gathered, verified and reported by local media.
Now consider the first tweet, because therein lies the story and the danger. The E&P piece is correct and worth a read. The 2008 financial crisis mortally wounded some newspapers. We have lost some entirely, but for many that are still hanging on, it forced heavy layoffs that affected quality in a way that led to more subscriber and advertising losses. It also accelerated the shift in ownership from news chains to hedge funds, the latter of which are just playing out the string and bleeding papers for any remaining profits before they are stripped for parts and closed.
If the direction of information from local to national media is vital to people like Tapper doing their work, then it’s worth asking what happens when the sender in that model can’t sustain itself.
In this case, local news has provided critical data about shortages and was the first to sound the alarm about the lack of COVID-19 test kits. Consider this from President Trump on March 6:
“Anybody that needs a test, gets a test. We — they’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.”
National media cannot parachute in all over the country to verify this information, nor can they rely on uneven reporting of data to tell the story. They need journalism that talks with people, with frustrated citizens encountering troubles. At best, national media can be a presence in the big cities and see how that is going, but in this case the feudal system of local journalism has to be actively providing news about how testing is going in communities.
In this case, the local reporting overwhelmingly supported the notion that tests were hard to get, if not impossible, at a time they were supposedly abundant. The spillover effect is obvious — it called into question the reliability of infection and mortality numbers and led to larger questions about Trump’s truthfulness and our ability to trust the rest of the administration’s response.
That linked Atlantic piece above is worth considering. How many of those questions could be reliably fact checked and verified by national media alone?
There are some things national media does well. They can cover responses, check documents, follow up on proclamations and orders. But our news ecosystem relies on on-the-ground local reporting in times like this, when there is heavy coordination between federal, state and local authorities and what is coming from the White House is only a piece of the story. Journalists in local media are first responders who can tell us what is working and what is not. Most depressing, when the death toll becomes staggering, it’s going to be local media tracking those numbers. Local reporting told us today, for example, that New York City is running out of morgue space and looking for makeshift morgues just as administration flacks were telling us things were peaking in NYC.
What the White House calls “sensationalism” is actually local reporting that counters their propaganda. It’s crucial work.
I’ve been saying for a while that national media is likely to ride out the current economic transformation of news. Local news, though has long been in trouble and its troubles are going to be exacerbated in the coming economic crisis. Advertising already is drying up — why advertise when businesses are closed — and subscriptions are not close to what is needed to make up the difference. More maddening, Americans think their local news outlet is doing fine financially and thus don’t support their local news source financially — it’s a problem of public perception fueling lack of subscription.
Think of advertising as something that subsidizes the newspaper, with subscriptions as helpful but mostly making up what would otherwise be losses. Now remove advertising from the ledger and what happens? In the heydays, ad revenue accounted for about 75% of revenue at many local papers. It hasn’t been that high for years, but it’s still a significant factor in local news sustaining itself. Any crash to the ad market will be fatal, because it will lead to new patterns that become permanent.
Some have called for bailouts for local news — it’s an idea that has some plusses and minuses if news organizations become dependent on the government they are supposed to hold accountable. I have my own people-driven bailout plan that I’ve been tweeting every day for two weeks:
I’m under no illusions your local news source is perfect. My own work puts me in the role of media critic at times. But there are two things I know. First, when you subscribe you have a type of shareholder power that you don’t if you’re using the news for free. Second, a product that doesn’t survive cannot grow and change for the better. Coverage gaps have been made worse by newsroom cuts due to economic troubles. Subscribe, and tell journalists what you want from your subscription. I can tell you now they are listening more than ever.
But more to the point, if we can’t sustain local news at this time, national reporters depending on this coverage to ask questions of national leaders that reflect what is happening in local communities:
Alcindor (who has been a star reporter during this crisis) was asking a question for local communities everywhere, fueled by reporting being done by journalists in those communities. We need to find a way to support these local reporters right now, so that these needs and questions will continue to be asked of those in DC.
Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University.