Friends, countrymen, furniture folks, lend me your ears. There is a dark cloud rising over a growing number of communities throughout the land, and with it comes a dire threat to the social fabric that weaves us together and, therefore, to nothing less than our democracy.
Local news is dying.
I suggest that this is a problem for all of us, but particularly for independently owned furniture retailers.
This past week, my academic department hosted the chief portfolio officer for the National Trust for Local News, who just happens to have been one of my very first research assistants when I joined the professorate 20 years ago. Ross McDuffie has dedicated himself to keeping local news in local hands, and he returned to his alma mater to raise the flag and sound the alarm: Our democracy is in peril.
Ross has a kindred cousin in Allen VanNoppen, who I knew as a sales executive at Kincaid but who now is making sure Burke County, North Carolina, has a trusted source of local news. VanNoppen is publisher at The Paper in downtown Morganton, where it is promised that “A human will always answer the phone when you call during business hours.”
It wasn’t that long ago when a stroll down the main street of a small town meant window shopping at the local family-owned furniture store and breezing past the offices of the local newspaper. And it wasn’t that long ago when those family-owned furniture stores advertised in those local newspapers.
Today, more than 1,400 counties in the United States are at risk of permanently losing their community news. These counties have one newspaper in operation, no digital alternative and a median household income below the national average. More than half of the 45 million Americans at risk of permanently losing community news are in the Southeast region.
The plight of local news, of the communities that local news serves, and of family-owned businesses that are those communities’ economic backbone would seem to be intertwined. One study published by the Journal of Financial Economics found that municipal borrowing costs increase by 5-11 basis points following a newspaper closure, a relationship found to be causal rather than mere correlation.
In my state of Georgia, one of journalism’s greatest and most committed philanthropic champions, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, just announced that it will be pouring $14 million into the city of Macon’s continued growth, including $5 million for Ross’ organization.
A 501(c)3, the National Trust for Local News will be starting up a newsroom in Macon in collaboration with Mercer University and DuBose Porter’s Courier Herald Publishing Group.
Speaking of Mercer, Knight is providing it $5 million toward relocating the School of Medicine to downtown Macon and $505,000 to help Wesleyan College also to move downtown. That’s not all. In the arts, the Otis Redding Foundation is receiving $1.5 million to support the opening of the technology-forward Otis Redding Center for the Arts. Another $1 million will boost efforts to turn the Ocmulgee Mounds into the next U.S. national park, while Knight is also earmarking $1 million to connect the 13-mile Ocmulgee Heritage Trail to the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.
A local amenity
Singularly dedicated to preserving and sustaining quality journalism, Knight recognizes with its efforts in Macon that to save local news means to help revitalize the communities that news serves. In this instance, the newsroom collaboration is on par with walking trails, higher education, parks and the arts. Independently owned and operated local news is, like the local symphony and the Wi-Fi infrastructure, a necessary feature of any claim to offering the good life a community might want to make.
“Dedicated to reinvigorating the urban core, fostering community engagement and nurturing a dynamic creative economy, Knight’s investments are focused on inspiring an informed and engaged community,” the Knight press release stated. “The foundation does this by investing in local journalism, economic development through entrepreneurial and business initiatives and improving public spaces for enhanced accessibility.”
As Ross’ presentation underlined, if it weren’t for governments paying local newspapers to run so many pages of basically unreadable public notices, appearing in 10-point type as they do, many of the shrinking number of surviving local newspapers would be forced to pack it in. Even with these essentially government subsidies and perhaps the revenues from selling obituaries, a shockingly few papers see a future for themselves more than four or five years out.
To put it bluntly, these local newspapers need advertisers. And furniture stores, along with grocery stores, car dealers and clothing stores, once provided those critical ad dollars. I do recognize that many if not most independently owned furniture stores similarly feel threatened and on the financial run. E-commerce, including and especially Amazon and Wayfair, and the big chains, in particular those selling financing as much if not more than anything on the showroom floor, are the functional equivalent of the big conglomerates and many online “news” sources pushing out the local rag.
Thus, the point here isn’t that hard-pressed family-owned furniture retailers should rescue their local newspapers by returning to print advertising. At least not simply that. The point is to point out that the future livelihoods of these businesses that are the bedrock of local communities are intertwined. As a voter and, therefore, someone with a vested interest in self-government, democracy and maybe someday an end to winner-take-all politics, I know I have a responsibility, as well.
The efforts in Macon are merely a drop in the philanthropic bucket of the Miami-based Knight Foundation. Just a couple of days before announcing the ventures in Macon, Knight broke news that it will be spending $150 million over the next five years as part of a yet larger effort spearheaded by the MacArthur Foundation that aims to enhance the growth, expansion and sustainability of local news organizations across the country. It’s called Press Forward. Since 2005, or roughly when I joined the professorate, Knight has tallied more than $630 million to enhance and support journalism.
“News is at the center of a healthy and engaged democracy,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president at Knight. “That is why a free press is protected in our constitution.”
I say democracy is at stake in all of this too for the reason Ibargüen states. As local newsrooms have disappeared across America, communities have witnessed fading civic engagement, eroding social bonds, surging misinformation and dwindling governmental accountability. Is it a coincidence that at the same time seemingly at the same rate, division and partisanship have increased? To the point that meaningful bipartisan legislation is the exception rather than the rule and that to imagine the U.S. Constitution being amended is to dream of fairies dancing on the heads of pins?
What is needed, therefore, is a shared vision and coordinated action that ensures we are informed and engaged on issues that affect our everyday lives. We need the news like we need food, and we should care about the sources of our news and information in the same ways we at least say we care about from where our food comes.
We don’t trust the big food companies, because we know they are using growth hormones, steroids and chemical additives. So much of our food is processed.
In the same way, we don’t trust the news because we know that disseminators are using algorithms, shares and re-tweets, and the additives of misinformation and even disinformation. So much of our information is processed.
We need farm-to-table food; we need farm-to-table news.
I teach and do journalism, so, of course I’m passionate about providing news that a self-governing democracy needs. The question for me: Is this self-governing democracy even interested in what it needs as opposed to what it thinks it wants? We are amusing and entertaining ourselves to civic death.
What we need is a local news renaissance that can reshape and re-center local journalism as a force for community cohesion, civic participation and government accountability. And family-owned businesses can help move us toward this renaissance. It will also depend on individuals, which is why this week I spent about the same amount of money to start up a subscription to our local rag (it is much, much less than perfect as a newspaper) as it might require of me to obtain a caramel vente latte at our local Starbucks. (By the way, support your local, independently owned coffee shops, too!)
What we need are more community newspapers like VanNoppen’s The Paper, also a 501(c)3 that is owned locally, managed locally, written locally and committed to digital delivery. (It might be the best newspaper website anywhere.)
VanNoppen’s and The Paper’s pledge includes “cultivating a vision of local news that values collaboration, connection and community. Freedom of the press is paramount to any vision of a thriving democracy.” I’ve risked sounding polemical, because I care so deeply, and because I am so profoundly concerned about the fraying of vital threads that hold American society together. I thank you for listening.