Local newspapers used to make a good portion of their money by selling classified advertisements. Subscription prices tended to pay for the costs of printing and running the business while the classifieds allowed them to turn a profit and remain somewhat independent.
As online free services like Craigslist and eBay have eaten away classified business, newspapers have struggled to turn a profit and this has led to consolidation and downsizing. When we think of newspapers, we tend to think of beefy newsrooms full of reporters chasing down daily and weekly stories. This isn’t true at most newspapers in our country. They get most of their news off “the wire”—national services such as the AP (Associated Press) or Reuters.
Today, newspapers typically have few reporters, especially political reporters. And these reporters often don’t have much time for investigative work. So they tend to report the details of an event with a quote or two from various “sides.”
What does local political and economic news look like? Here’s a quick breakdown with some examples:
Breaking news, especially of the bleeding variety:
- Worker of shooting victim: ‘We are devastated’
- Downpours flood local basements – with more rain on the way
- Two dozen cars vandalized on West Clifton Street
- Violence prevention vs. addition services: City reaches budget compromise
Updates and advertising about new products and businesses:
- Mini Target store set to open near university
- Micro apartments coming to urban core
- Tips for freelancers to save for retirement
Polarizing opinions from both “sides”:
- For this gay candidate, ‘identity politics a joke’
- Ohio workers’ retirement money is at risk
- Parents should be concerned about Gorsuch’s opinions
Propaganda from the newspaper owners
This was my experience interviewing for a local politics beat position at a mid-size city newspaper. What they were after was someone who would find extreme opinions from both sides. I was asked during the interview if I would be okay finding articles from both sides. I asked the editor if I had to put my name on the articles. “No,” she said. I said I could do this.
What I really wanted to know was if I would have to put my name on something I didn’t agree with. I was told I wouldn’t. However, I would have to write endorsements for candidates under the banner of the newspaper itself. And I was told the endorsements were typically chosen by the owner of the paper, who was a prominent local conservative business owner. In my opinion, this is nothing more than propaganda.
The owner is choosing the candidates for endorsement. Then the editorial staff has to create an editorial as if it’s coming from a trusted source. What they don’t tell you is that the owner is making the endorsements.
Conservatives will tell you that the news is “liberal” because most reporters are liberal. That most are liberal is likely true.
But knowing the industry, what’s more important is who owns the paper or the radio/TV station. Who owns the media outlet tends to determine the editorial direction of the paper and whether or not it’s independent or not. It determines what syndicated columnists are featured and it often determines editorials and endorsements and who gets hired as editors or content directors which, in turn, determines the stories that get published.
It doesn’t matter how liberal a reporter is if the editor says, “You can’t publish that story on Mr. Local Prominent Businessman.” It doesn’t matter how liberal a reporter is if a business threatens to withdraw advertising or sue the newspaper/station.
Steven Singer describes similar experiences working for local papers in Western Pennsylvania. Every reporter will tell you the same thing. Think of it like music playlists on the FM dial. People like to romanticize radio as some hip cool DJ playing what he wants. The reality tends to be that DJs are given a playlist and have to play what’s on it in order to turn a profit.
Hiding behind the old façade of news
All this wouldn’t be nearly as damaging except newspapers and radio/TV news still operate under the banner of news. People still believe that they’re out to serve the public interest.
Instead, the business models for corporate news outlets are more often than not:
These days owners of media outlets are often willing to make little money on the media outlets themselves because of the benefits to their other businesses from advertising and propaganda.
This isn’t to say that everything in the news is entertainment or propaganda. Mixed in with the entertainment and propaganda are often some valuable tidbits of information. And it is probably still one of the best ways to keep up with current events.
It is, however, mixed in with these biases. The news is short and events are often covered without much context. The news wants you to come back for more. So it often features polarizing opinions from both “sides” as if every issue has two sides in a grudge match.
Corporate media won’t tell you about these biases. It claims to be unbiased.
Finding valuable information and context in people-based writing
When I want to know about subjects that involve education, I’ll look to folks like Steven Singer and Diane Ravitch and Facebook groups like Badass Teachers Association. I’ll read what they write and post online and I may even buy their books. I’ll also scan Daily Kos for articles about education and look to see what authors like teacherken are posting. This tends to tell me more about what’s going on in education than corporate media.
Corporate media isn’t trying to inform me about education. Corporate media is trying to sell me on something. Like testing kids (because this is big business). Or privatizing schools (also big business).
This is one of the big reasons I started writing about politics and economics: I couldn’t find what I was looking for in corporate media. The biggest story of our time, how corporate special interests bought our government, still goes largely uncovered. Here and there, we’ll catch glimpses of it. But never in context and never with a sense of the order of magnitude of what’s really going on and with little information about what to do about it.
Unlike corporate media, I’ll tell you my biases and what I believe upfront. I’m a liberal. I believe in equality, freedom, mutual responsibility, and democracy. I believe in people and I believe government should be by and for people—not corporate special interests. I believe our economy should work for everyone, not just for a few people at the top. What I want to sell you on is that I hope you’ll join me in trying to make a democratic society happen.
When I was asked to contribute to the Sunday Daily Kos front page it was carte blanche. I’ve never been told what to write or had an article changed significantly or rejected. What this allows me to do is to focus on my passion: Helping people learn about politics and economics and talk to the people they know about complex topics. These are the types of articles that in the past would sometimes make the recommended list but would more often be showcased under community spotlight. They’re the type of articles that help put events into context or help explain some subject. Why are these current events important, what patterns do they fit into, and is this a good or bad thing?
This is what I feel people-based writing at sites like Daily Kos brings to the table. Events are important and journalists certainly have a role in bringing us what’s going on in the world around us. Unfortunately, it often comes with hidden biases and wrapped with entertainment and/or hidden propaganda such as Sinclair Broadcasting’s “must runs.”
Since this is such an interesting topic though, Iet’s discuss it further: How do you use the media to learn? Who are your favorite writers and where do you look when you want to understand difficult subjects?
David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy(also available as an ebook).