The Anti-Woke Case for Saving Local News
It's rather straightforward
There is a certain type of person who cheers on the collapse of the mainstream media. They revile establishment institutions. They are Trump-curious and have inherited his open hatred of the media, though they are usually unaware the former president has been an obsessive reader of tabloid newspapers and will still grant interviews to the New York Times. They feel the media, in general, is stuffed with too many liberals, too many wokes, and why care when so-called Democratic Party propaganda organs like the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times lay off a bunch of journalists? A bunch of journalists who are probably libs and hate them? The media, in their view, is one great hivemind, one massive liberal industrial-complex that needs to be dismantled so the new world can take root.
Consider this piece, then, aimed at those people—the people who want the media to die. Or, at least, the people who think the media is too irremediably liberal, too activist, too woke.
It would be simplistic to say all of print and online media has a liberal bias. Editorial boards vary, as do economic incentives. What can be said, with much more certainty, is that many of the people staffing the prominent news organizations today—the New York Times, Vox, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, CNN—are left-leaning on social issues and vote Democrat, assuming they participate in elections. In part, this is because the news media now, like most white collar industries, skews greatly to the college-educated and the college-educated—now more than ever—belong to the Democratic coalition. Most of the famed news organizations in America are based in New York and Washington D.C., which are Democratic strongholds. The reporters, editors, and producers tend to be cosmopolitan urbanites. None of this is a secret.
But why, in 2024, are all of the news organizations of any consequence in two cities? Why are most of the people with staff jobs affluent liberals?
The answer is rather straightforward. The other papers are dying or dead. Take a look at this map, helpfully provided by Axios, a D.C.-based publication that aims to be nonpartisan. By later this year, one-third of the newspapers that existed since 2005 will have completely disappeared.
That’s nearly 3,000 newspapers. Note that none of those dead papers are the New York Times or Washington Post. They are, rather, the South Idaho Press in Burley, the Daily Southerner in Tarboro, North Carolina, and the Benton County Daily Record in Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s the rural, poorer counties that have suffered most from the media collapse, with whole regions now missing a reliable sources of news. The statistics are more dire than they appear because many of the smaller newspapers that still exist barely publish original news and reporting. They are “ghost” newspapers, like the Gleaner in Henderson, Kentucky, which does not employ a single journalist. Travel to a town or small city in America, and you’ll read newspapers like these, populated with wire copy from the Associated Press or articles taken from other regions where the conglomerate—in this case, Gannett—operates larger newspapers. Or they’ll just print press releases, like a local Michigan paper I’ll often read when I travel to see family.
In the twentieth century, the East and West Coast news organizations could only have such a gravitational pull because there were so many functioning local newspapers in every region of the country. And these newspapers in states like Arkansas, Kentucky, Idaho, and North Carolina employed locals. To talk of the media, in 1972 or 1988, would have meant referring to fully-stocked newsrooms that were situated nowhere near any major metropolitan area. Or, within major metropolitan areas, there were large newspapers with competing sensibilities. The Daily News in New York was populist, working class, and very outer borough. The rival Post, under Rupert Murdoch, was more conservative and sensationalist, but also hunted for stories beyond Manhattan. The old media, in the twentieth century, did a lousy job of promoting women and nonwhite reporters, and this can’t be handwaved away. But with so many more job opportunities in so many different regions, it was impossible for the media to be anything like a monolith. A newspaper in suburban Pittsburgh was going to read differently than a newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi.
In this healthier environment for news, the working class could ascend in the journalism field. College degrees weren’t a requirement. Some reporters could even come out of high school and start apprenticing, learning from editors and climbing the ranks steadily. Graduating from a fashionable college was certainly not a requirement when competition for a journalism job was less fierce. The New York Times might recruit out of Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton, but not the Cincinnati Post. Ideological diversity was a given: upscale liberals were not flooding newsrooms in rural Illinois or Montana. The newspapers themselves would take on the characters of their communities, for good and ill, and the reporters would live and work among the people they were reporting on.
In the 2020s, in such a precarious moment for the media, only the strongest will survive. And the strongest are those that, for the most part, the anti-woke resent the most. The New York Times and the Washington Post will not collapse into dust. Neither will the Los Angeles Times, which so many of you have told me—I have not verified this—got far too liberal for Southern California. What I can tell you, without question, is that any newspaper today that might be an ideological counterweight to an East or West Coast institution is dying or already dead. For those who are actually sick of the political polarization in America and don’t want to see the media universe cleaved wholly between people who watch Fox News and people who watch CNN/MSNBC, reviving local news is essential. There’s no other way.
The means for a revival exist. Nonprofit newsrooms have started to pop up in cities and towns desperate for local coverage. These nonprofits are small, and can’t fill the gaps entirely. Wealthy philanthropists have announced new investments, but the wealthy are a fickle bunch, and philanthropy can dissipate. Long-term sustainability will only come through public support: either tax subsidies or, more helpfully, direct federal subsidies. PBS is already subsidized by the federal government and doesn’t transform into a propaganda organ for whichever president is in power. Conservatives in England complain about the BBC’s liberal bias, but a federal subsidy program wouldn’t create a million little BBC’s across America. What would work best—and be easiest to administer—are federal block grants that come with few strings attached. The first tranche would be available to existing local newspapers that are barely surviving. Newspapers in Kansas, Texas, and Iowa would have access to cash to hire reporters and build out newsrooms. Later on, if this is successful, federal cash can seed new newspapers, targeting areas that are least served, the counties with no currently existing newspapers. Do this, and you’ll suddenly see people who don’t reflexively vote Democrat entering and running newsrooms. Imagine that.
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