Morning time, sipping strong coffee and reading printed newspapers is one of my favorite times of the day. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, along with Wednesday Journal and Forest Leaves fill many hours. Our local papers add another dimension to my reading pleasure. They are informational and offer articles of national importance, too. Our journalists are extremely talented, demonstrated by our own Ken Trainor, and letters from readers are diverse and thought-worthy.
Recently, I’ve been reading alarming reports about community newspapers and their desecration. It seems that some right-wing, big-business groups are seizing local publications and with the support and often encouragement from high-financed syndications.
One of the articles describing this disturbing trend used an example of “The Austin American Statesman,” which was swallowed up in 2019 by the Gannett chain. Nationally, it joined the ranks of more than 1,000 other mass-produced local papers now under the corporate control of the USA Today Network. Further, I learned that the The Gannett chain is an entity owned and controlled by the Soft Bank Group, a multibillion-dollar Japanese financial consortium. I’m sure the Soft Bank Group isn’t interested in the community issues, which was the focus of the Austin American Statesman.
Also, many of our national daily newspapers are in the grip of primarily three huge hedge funds: Soft Bank Group, Alden Global Capital, and Chatham Asset Management. Under the guise of providing assistance, they are plundering local news holdings. A Wall Street euphemism calls this practice, “the financialization of journalism.”
As a result of these take-overs, talented and dedicated journalists and production folks are being dismissed or fighting hard to hold onto their dying newspapers, trying to publish basic and truthful information. They face the seemingly impossible.
The new owners seek to spread their own right-wing leaning news, often indifferent to actual news, local or otherwise. The size of these struggling papers is reduced; they are primarily run by new staff; they are higher priced; and right-leaning information is the focus. Community letters and voices are kept to a minimum. The information that is printed is meant to thwart civic engagement and public knowledge.
These predators use scare tactics feeding into parental fear and racist views. The most extreme of these unscrupulous folks fabricate conspiracies and use the news media to warn folks against “Un-Christian, multicultural people who desire to replace white society.” Educators, librarians, school board members are targeted. We need to be aware of this harmful, politically-biased groundswell which is literally exploiting truth and damaging our democracy.
I knew that entities like the Koch Brothers Donors Trust Group were involved in these focused activities. My surprise came when I learned that both Facebook and Google also play a role in this pillaging effort.
Shockingly, since 2005, America has lost one quarter of its community-based newspapers, and up to two papers/week are either folding or cutting their publishing to the core. The JCPA (Journalism Competition Preservation Act) is a proposal meant to protect local papers from big-tech pillaging. Unfortunately, their efforts have not been successful. We need to respond to this crisis by contacting our congressmen, asking them to provide more federal funding in support of public news sources.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, in 2020 U.S. funding for local newspapers was at a rate of $1.42 per capita, compared to $100 per capita in the United Kingdom and Sweden. We should do what we can to support our local newspapers in their uphill effort to continue providing truthful information.
Note: Information in this column was sourced from the Hightower Lowdown, Jim Hightower, writer; researchers Laura Ehrlch and Melody Byrd; Rebuild Local News; and the American Journalism Project.