16th Century British statesman Edmund Burke was purported to have said on the floor of the House of Commons, "there were three Estates … but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all." For Burke, the press served as a critical and indispensable check on government. Today, Edmund Burke would likely be disappointed to learn that some in power have taken quite the opposite view, unleashing a full assault on the press, labeling real news as fake and propping up fake news as, well, real. Burke would also be troubled to discover that even beyond an erosion of trust, news outlets are being ravaged by increasingly difficult economics.
While they could always do better, by and large the national media continues to effectively serve as a check on the government on a national level. National news outlets feature significant and, often times, probing, coverage of the presidency and the current presidential campaign. The national umpires of the fourth estate appear to be keeping their eyes on the game, at least for now. But there's a critical piece missing. The bright lights of national coverage are obscuring an insidious trend at the local level--declining objective local coverage.
If national news is the watchtower, local news serves as the foundation of the fourth estate. Unfortunately, the foundation is eroding and water is finding its way into the cracks. In this case, water represents entities that hold themselves out as objective local news. They are anything but.
These supposedly objective local news sites are popping up all over the country, often anonymous, and in many cases funded by political action committees and other ideological interests. Insidiously, they appear to contain relatively bland straight-forward reporting. They build an audience by pedaling in mundane news generated by algorithms or real authors, but slip in their partisan slant or, more subtly, make editorial choices to eliminate anything resembling a balanced point of view.
This phenomenon isn't entirely without historical precedent. There was Hearst and Pulitzer's yellow journalism that helped lead the United States into the Spanish American War. Technological innovation--the invention of the penny press--aided in the spread of these papers. What is different today, however, is that technology has exponentially accelerated both the amount of information available to us and the pace with which it is delivered. Further, technology has made it easier to seal ourselves into our own ideological bubbles, with very little access to counter-programming.
The reporting contained on these nouveau-yellow "local news" sites has an outsized impact. This is happening because more than 2,000 communities have lost their local newspaper during the last decade while local newspapers still in business are continuing to consolidate under financial pressures. Regional and state newspapers are reducing or eliminating their local news coverage, as well, in many cases because it is too expensive and too time consuming to do it correctly. In New Jersey, for example, the Star Ledger, the state’s flagship newspaper, has made the editorial decision to cut local news coverage to focus more on national news.
There is a strong demand for local news, but the economics of reporting it don't make sense for many big newspaper chains. At TAPinto, we have more reporters on the ground in New Jersey covering local news than any other outlet. Much of that success has come from developing a high-quality user experience while allowing our local owner/publishers to put more resources into reporting.
Our platform has worked well for legacy local print papers, as well. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we provide an online presence out-of-the-box, enabling hard copy newspapers to develop new, high-quality revenue streams.
The point is, if those with nefarious motives can innovate to fill the void, we should be able to as well. As we approach the presidential election, we will likely see the impact that these bad actors are having on a broad scale. But, I also believe we have a golden age of local news still ahead of us. To get there we need to think differently and move quickly. Our democracy depends on it.
Michael Shapiro is Publisher and CEO of http://TAPinto.net, a network of 80+ franchised online local news sites in NJ, NY, and FL.