A recent article in the online daily magazine The Guardian reported on a story that fully illustrates the collision between print media and social media. In the article, representatives from Facebook reported that their attempts to curate local news for their audiences is falling flat due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer local newspapers that are reporting on stories in their community.
Recent research from the University of North Carolina has found that over the last 15 years, over 1,800 daily newspapers have folded and employment in the sector has dropped by 45 percent. The research also showed that 43 percent of people in the Midwest live in a “news desert” and aren’t actively served by a local newspaper.
What has caused the disruption in this once storied industry? Irony of ironies, its Facebook.
People of all ages and all demographics are using Facebook and all other social media platforms to learn about the happenings in their community. They are using the platform to interact with others and discuss ideas. And while social media has been helpful, there is no doubt, it has its drawback as well.
I can go through my feed daily and I am bombarded with “fake news” from all sides and all perspectives. And I’ll be the first to admit, I have fallen victim to sharing or liking a “fake news” story probably more often than I should. But that is what “fake news” is all about. It’s all about trying to get an emotional response and not a thoughtful rebuke. If my buttons get pushed in just the right way, my brain turns off. Aren’t we all that way, in some sense?
At least with our local newspaper, I hope that we have an institution that isn’t built on those emotional responses, but built on a foundation of ideas and facts that can be thoroughly and thoughtfully discussed from both sides of an issue. For the most part, I think our local newspapers fill that role well.
And, I’ll admit, I am biased.
When I was 10 years old, I had a paper route. There was nothing better for a 10-year-old kid to learn responsibility and earn skills that would pay off as an adult. As I was passing out those papers every afternoon, I’d often run into a customer and the first question out of their mouth, without fail would be, “Anything good in the paper today?”
It was at that point I realized that there was a huge difference from delivering the product to knowing the product. From that first day on, I read the paper each and every day. And the value of that exercise was more than just developing a knowledge of my community. From the understanding I gained from reading the newspaper, I was able to have deep discussions with my family about what was happening in our town. My newspaper helped me not only tell the story of my community, but it helped me make sense of the world around me.
Social media tries to fill both roles. Not only is it a place to read and learn about what is happening in the community, it also has become a forum for those discussions. And sometimes, those discussions can become thoughtful and helpful, but so many times it’s not. Too many times, social media has become a place where our emotions take over. It’s a place where we believe that the fact that we can let our feelings known are more important than the thoughts we want to share.
More than anything, I want our local newspapers to be successful. There needs to be an honest broker to plainly state what is happening in our world and in our community. We need this institution to be a place where even the most controversial of ideas can be shared, not to elicit an emotional response, but to secure more thoughtful ideas.
The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees the right of a free press. And I believe that local newspapers are an important part of our press. If we lose those newspapers and their ability to be honest brokers for our discussion, we lose a lot.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.