With so many local newspapers and reporters’ jobs gone, U.S. towns are suffering a profound information crisis. Which is exactly what Republicans want.
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My 9-year-old daughter reads everything that comes into our house, from landscaping business flyers to the Sunday New York Times. But one afternoon, something resembling a newspaper arrived in the mail out of the blue called the West Cook News. She picked it out of the pile of mail I brought in one afternoon and looked at it with alarm. It was a standard-looking broadsheet with full-color photos and copy blocks, a bright masthead with the name of our Chicago-area county.
But I immediately detected that something was seriously off. For one thing, all of the headlines suggested the apocalypse was nigh.
The West Cook News promised that it was coming soon. Hitting all the GOP talking points, it alleged that Democratic politicians would be springing violent criminals from prison after they had murdered women, raped children, and set fire to whole blocks of homes. Who were the perpetrators of such horrors? The paper suggested they could be found among the mugshots of unidentified, nameless Black men they printed in their pages.
West Cook News stoked other fears: Public schools were failing our kids because teachers were instructing students to change their gender and feel ashamed for being white. Unions were enriching themselves at students’ expense, tax dollars were being shamefully wasted. Immigrants were invading. Local businesses were taxed to death. And America’s police officers were so demoralized by the intensifying demands for accountability that they couldn’t do their jobs.
“Is that a new paper?” my daughter asked me. She appeared alarmed.
No, honey, I told her. It’s not a newspaper. It’s a pamphlet full of lies. The West Cook News is part of a network of free, fake newspapers funded by a local Republican activist named Dan Proft, who made his bones on right-wing hate radio and is now killing hundreds of trees to try to convince suburbanites to elect GOP candidates through white resentment and fear.
With its familiar typefaces and free delivery, the paper seems legit at first glance. Proft, and his fellow right-wing practitioners of what has become known as “pink slime journalism” want to fill a very real void in America’s attention span with propaganda, not facts, and they’re counting on a desire for local news to gloss over how bad their intentions are.
Americans’ hunger for a new source of information is real. Local news is in crisis, local newspapers even more so. In the past two decades America has lost a third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its newspaper journalists. Last year alone, two newspapers closed every week. This leaves communities without a voice or a watchdog, dependent on word-of-mouth and unreliable social media sources for information.
Out-of-town chains bought up papers in the mid-2000s and began making the product worse. In Montana, Lee Enterprises slashed printing days. In Illinois, Hollinger International moved production out of town and fired award-winning reporters and photographers. The nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, began a pattern of massive layoffs at papers from New Jersey to California, closing printing presses and leaving some of its dozens of holdings without any reporters at all.
Once hedge funds bought up those same chains, the problems got worse. Alden Global Capital, which acquired papers across the country from Lee and Gannett, specialized in extracting as much profit as possible from newspapers. Flagship dailies like the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun lost more than a quarter of their staff, including some of the most experienced journalists.
In the absence of their hometown papers, many people turned to television or radio news, which in the best cases was a network affiliate or NPR, but in many cases was Fox News and syndicated Rush Limbaugh impersonators spewing the same misogyny and paranoia they’ve always promoted. Podcasters like Clay Travis and Buck Sexton jumped into the game, adding homophobia and anti-vax lies to the misery mix.
In order to get people to believe their liars, these right-wing grifters first had to mentally divorce people from the media that would enlighten them. We’re the only ones you can trust, Rush all his imitators said, and everyone else is biased. We report, Fox News insisted, and YOU decide.
Bankrolled by GOP operatives, these con artists told people who had picked up a paper from their porch for decades that that paper was “media” and “mainstream media” hated them and people like them—i.e., hard-working Americans. People informed by local reporters about town government and church bake sales listened to Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes and Dan Bongino tell audiences “the mainstream media” looked down on their values and they should be glad it was dying.
By the time former president Donald Trump put reporters in pens at his rallies and encouraged his audience to shout slurs at the “enemies of the people,” few of those people even knew a local news reporter anymore. They didn’t see their neighbor or cousin or friend in Trump’s sights; they saw strangers who were easier to hate.
There are efforts underway to revitalize the local-news landscape and address lack of access to information. Since 2017, more than 135 nonprofit newsrooms have launched across the country, nearly half of them focusing on the city or neighborhood level, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Funders like the Knight Foundation, the American Journalism Project, the MacArthur Foundation and others provide multi-million-dollar incentives for newsrooms to either convert to nonprofit status or start up entirely.
Journalists themselves have spearheaded support campaigns on social media, urging the public to subscribe to their local papers and raising funds to send pizzas to local newsrooms.
But in supporting local news, we need to keep in mind what makes it valuable in the first place. Calling something “local news” doesn’t make it automatically virtuous. A local newspaper can be rife with copaganda. Its reporters can uncritically parrot Republican talking points as easily as national pundits do. Its editors and owners face the same pressure as anyone to protect friends and advertisers from public criticism. And it might just as easily be funded by political interests out of town, like West Cook News, and other networks of false-news papers.
To be worthy of support, local news should encompass the following: original reporting and writing by those with deep knowledge of the community and investment in its future. Transparency about funding—where the money comes from, and how it’s used. Accountability to its audience, and a willingness to listen to good-faith criticism and most of all, a critical approach to all power, from politicians to pastors to police chiefs.
Those are the qualities that distinguish great local journalism from propaganda. Before we support organizations on the basis of location, we should ask what value they provide. We should verify that the information they report is accurate, and the editorials they offer are grounded in fact, and watch how they respond to pressure from the public.
Then we can send them our subscription dollars, and maybe even some pizza.
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