As newspapers shrink, the civic cost grows

(Source: UNC School of Media and Journalism. Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media)
(Source: UNC School of Media and Journalism. Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media)

Facebook made $6.88 billion in the 4th quarter of last year, and a chunk of it came at the expense of this newspaper. As news migrated from print to digital over the past decade, the vast majority of advertising revenue was captured by just two companies: Google and Facebook.

That means billions of advertising dollars that once stayed in local economies and sustained local reporters all over the country now get vacuumed out to Silicon Valley, fattening the profits of companies that compete for our attention without producing any journalism. It’s why the median home price in Menlo Park is north of $2 million, while small-town reporters subsist on poverty wages. It’s the reason one in five newspapers have shuttered in the past 15 years — and part of the reason McClatchy, The N&O’s parent company, just announced yet another round of early retirement offers.

“In 2010, newspaper revenue shrank below its 1950 level,” said Penny Abernathy, a professor at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism who studies the shifting economics of the news business. “You’ve lost people who routinely covered town council meetings, county commissioners meetings — the local news that’s the lifeblood of democracy.”

Abernathy says we’re living through an age of “media contradictions,” where there’s more access to national news and commentary than ever before, but local coverage is drying up in all but the strongest markets. “Local news about a tax increase or a zoning decision is rarely of such interest that it trends, but it has an outsized impact on the everyday life of residents in small towns, city neighborhoods, and suburbia,” she wrote in a 2018 report.

I think that loss is contributing mightily to the sense of frustration so many of us feel with politics and public life. Local news covers the kinds of problems you can actually fix, the issues where normal people can get involved and make an obvious difference.

You can show up for a school board meeting, write the town council, call the public works department to complain. You can take effective action in response to something you learned, some real-life problem that needs solving. Local life is where the muscles of citizenship get exercised, where people learn to participate instead of just watch.

There aren’t many productive things you can do about border walls or the Mueller investigation or whatever is piquing the algorithms of the national news outlets on any given day. Those issues are important, but they’ve been endlessly repackaged as cheap entertainment. An obsessive focus on national issues, without workaday local concerns to balance things out, just makes everyone exhausted and cynical.

“Our community and business continue to grow,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in that cheerful earnings announcement last week. He’s right about the business continuing to grow, but wrong about the community. Because that’s not what Facebook is, in any real sense. There are 2.7 billion people who use Facebook every month, scattered from Burlington to Bhutan, each seeing a highly individualized version of news and entertainment. To call that a community just empties the word of meaning.

Your community, for better or worse, is the place where you live. It’s the geography you occupy day-to-day, the neighbors you do (or don’t) see as you go about life outside the screen. Our old model of news recognized this reality; our new model of “news” relentlessly funnels your money and your attention away from the place you actually call home.

Along with Abernathy’s “media contradictions,” one of the great paradoxes of our historical moment is that there’s enormous political energy being ginned up, but very little of it gets channeled to productive ends. I’m all in favor of paying attention to national news, but there’s no virtue in impotent outrage. Reserve some time for causes closer to home, and get to work.

Contributing columnist Eric Johnson lives in Chapel Hill.