Recently I finished listening to the Serial podcast’s remarkable (and remarkably underrated) third season — a deep dive into the cesspool of the criminal justice system in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, the vast metropolis that includes Cleveland. Sarah Koenig and her team from the NPR podcast spent more than a year inside the county’s towering criminal justice center to lift up that rock and expose a system rigged to dig holes that that everyday citizens who fall in can never climb out.
It was staggering to learn about devastated, de-industrialized communities like East Cleveland, where its barely functioning civic government doesn’t keep any records, and criminal suspects deprived of their civil rights can sue all they want because there’s no money to collect. The Serial team exposed cases where people were arrested and simply thrown into a storage closet for days with no charges — and no toilet. The listener is compelled to ask, how can this even happen? And there’s no easy answer. But one partial answer is more of the sunlight that Serial’s journalism threw onto East Cleveland’s problems.
Simply put, greater Cleveland needs more journalists, But it’s about to get even fewer of them. Last week, the only daily newspaper in Ohio’s largest city — the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, published by the Advance Communications chain — announced its latest batch of layoffs, with 12 more reporters and editors getting a pink slip, This is in addition to another nearly simultaneous move of eliminating 24 copy editors and designers and moving their work to a faceless (and non-unionized, of course) centralized location.
The villain, according to the announcement, was a familiar one: Declining print advertising revenue. And the cumulative effect of years of job losses at the P-D — which six years ago reduced home delivery to its print subscribers to three days a week — have been devastating. (At that time, Terry Egger was president, publisher and chief executive of the P-D. He is currently the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer.) In just a decade, the paper’s union — the very first News Guild local in America — went from 340 jobs to only 30. That’s not a typo. That’s one journalist for every 70,000 people in metro Cleveland. And if you’re a corrupt cop or public official in East Cleveland, you can sleep a lot easier tonight, knowing your sordid secrets are safe.
It may not meet the official definition, but Cleveland is fast becoming a “news desert,” a term that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. It refers to the growing number of American places — from rural prairies to Midwestern towns in the shadow of abandoned smokestacks — that have few or, increasingly, no sources of local journalism. This week, Facebook — of all corporate people! — shined its gigantic spotlight on the shrinkage of local news reporting by publishing a map showing where the flow of information has dried up.
The areas in the lightest shade of green are “news deserts.” Not surprisingly, rural areas suffer the most — you could literally drive on a line straight north from the border with Mexico in west Texas all the way to Canada and not pass a vibrant news environment. But why is Facebook bothering to tell us this?
About a year ago — in part after stinging criticism that its platform was drowning in literally fake political news that had ultimately swamped the U.S. 2016 presidential election — Facebook announced a new initiative called Today In. The idea was to give Facebook’s gazillion readers five local news stories every day about their hometown, from trusted mainstream news sources. But the plan faltered in its execution. Team Zuckerberg soon learned a lot of American towns simply aren’t blessed with five reported news stories every day.
“About one in three users in the U.S. live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In.” two Facebook execs wrote in a blog post on Monday. “What does that mean exactly? In the last 28 days, there has not been a single day where we’ve been able to find five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns. This does not vary much by region: 35 percent of users in the Midwest, Northeast, and South – and 26 percent in the West — live in places where we can’t find much local news on Facebook.” Not all of the areas are ones you’d expect. Facebook had a problem finding local news in parts of New Jersey — a sad commentary on the way that balkanized state is covered by its news orgs.
Who killed the local journalism that Facebook wanted to promote? It’s not exactly the whodunnit of the century. The calls are coming from inside Mark Zuckerberg’s big glass house in Menlo Park, California. OK, Facebook may not be the only killer of legacy news orgs, but the crime scene is littered with its DNA.
Over the last 15 years, as Americans became addicted to the electrons of their laptops and then their mobile phones and ditched the messy ink and day-old headlines of a printed newspaper, Facebook — offering not just news of the world but news of your actual friends — sopped up much of that bandwidth. And advertisers know it. The companies that spent most of their 20th Century ad dollars on newspapers when those papers had a monopoly on reaching local consumers are now on Facebook, which attracted 22 percent of all digital advertising dollars last year. The newsrooms that lost those ad dollars are laying off journalists. It’s Econ 101.
The tragedy is that Facebook is run by smart people who understand this is a bad downward spiral. Many people — young people entering our allegedly democratic system in particular — have been increasingly getting most or all of their news from posts on social media, so the implosion of modern journalism will rob Facebook of valuable content. But Facebook is built for quarterly profits, designing algorithms to keep you on its site and to keep sucking out those ad dollars like a vampire squid. The greater civic good will never be programmed in. America is going to see more and more towns like Waynesville, Missouri, which recently lost the Daily Guide newspaper and where one retiree told the Associated Press, “candidly, for the most part, I’m ignorant.”
But wait, everybody: Facebook has a solution to the problem that it helped cause in the first place. The blog post announcing the problems with its 2018 news initiative revealed a new plan for 2019, which includes a $300 million fund to philanthropically support local news initiatives across the United States. That’s great news, but ... isn’t this the giant Catch-22 of 21st Century philanthropy? Millions of dollars meant to deflect your questions about a rigged system that brings in billions of dollars for the status quo.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — whom, you may have heard, is also running for president — has a better idea. She’s proposed an innovative plan to end the monopoly power exercised by Facebook and at least two other tech mega-giants, Amazon and Google. Much like the way that government stepped in to save capitalism and reduce unfairness in the 19th Century caused by monopoly-seeking robber barons, Warren wants to regulate the largest tech platforms like other utilities, with laws to prevent anti-competitive mergers (in the case of Facebook, its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp) and practices that allow these platforms to monopolize product sales and information on their sites, as well as the sale of our private information.
“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” Warren wrote. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else.”
She’s right. And the destruction of America’s local news landscape is only part of the trouble with Facebook. As last week’s mass murder in New Zealand powerfully showed, a lack of leadership has allowed Facebook (and other social media) to become platforms less for democratic dialogue and more for spreading hate, with violence that can now be broadcast live to the world in real time. The 2016 election showed how Facebook was manipulated by fake news scammers in Macedonia, Russian spies, and firms like Cambridge Analytica that found it way too easy to abuse our private data.
For local news, a less powerful Facebook would be only part of the solution. There’s a need for civic-minded (as opposed to self-interested) philanthropy, a public that understands the value of journalism and is willing to pay for it, and for those of us to work in media to constantly do a better job. And Warren’s proposal is just a starting point — but it’s a conversation that needs to urgently be had, as social media increasingly becomes the artery for spreading the cancers of a new millennium.
Even as we’re still trying to figure out what the hell hit us in 2016, the 2020 presidential election is here — and the warning signs are terrible. Already, Russian trolls are said to be developing new strategy to ensure that divisive political content finds its way onto Facebook ahead of the vote. More importantly, Axios reported on Tuesday that President Trump’s campaign has already spent a whopping $3.5 million on Facebook advertising — double all of the Democratic campaigns combined — with much more to come.
Nature abhors a vacuum — and, apparently, a news desert. Those dry, barren lands are about to be flooded with propaganda.