What is the value of your local news?
One of the few silver linings during this pandemic chapter in American life is that some people are realizing the value of local news. With our frenzy of postings, visits to our website have nearly quadrupled as people look for the latest on this crazy, virus-fueled chapter of our lives.
Newspapers are doing everything they can to adapt. Yes, the virus is hitting your local paper as hard as it is other businesses. And as you likely noticed, our industry had its struggles before this global pandemic. Many of us are using this challenging time to get better at new ways of presenting information and, hopefully, finding new revenue streams.
Like many businesses, we applied for the PPP loans and fortunately were approved. (See our front-page story about how local bankers are helping steer this infusion of cash to small businesses.) There are signs of another infusion coming from Congress this week.
We’ve also been exploring other grant opportunities. Facebook and Google, which have done as much to damage our industry in the past decade as any entity, are offering local news grants. A lot of us are swallowing our pride and applying to these giants that have lorded over the news ecosystem and sold advertising around our content, to which they control the digital gateway.
I have always compared our product in this case — news coverage — to a candy bar. If I was to put new wrappers on a chocolate bar and resell them, I would likely hear from Mr. Hershey’s attorney. Yet Facebook and Google have sold advertising around our "product" - news coverage - since they came onto the scene.
And unfortunately, the explosion of internet use over the past two decades — combined with our own industry’s stumbles — has meant people want news for free. These platforms encourage us to give it away for free, and then we are supposed to figure out how to operate while giving away our product.
Google and Facebook have gobbled up the advertising markets with free listings and low cost-per-thousand imaging (though it’s not as low as it used to be). Yet they have done so with a “not my job” approach in policing their platform’s content. This has, of course, led to abuse, fraud and the spread of vast amounts of misinformation. To hear multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg say Facebook can’t police its own platform because “we’re not editors” makes those of us raised in the news industry cringe.
There also has been a patronizing view of our industry by them, like a music festival owner goading musicians to play for free because “think of all the exposure!” Even large publications like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal get next to nothing for sharing content on these platforms, even though they have huge followings.
Google and Facebook also capitalize on Big Brother technology that tracks web usage, listens in on conversations and even looks through the cameras on our phones. Then they sell advertising based on this surreptitiously gathered information. Users generally default “accept” these terms or the site-tracking cookies.
Yeah, it’s a better mousetrap, but independent news organizations, whose focus is to provide local news to their communities, have no way to compete against that type of omnipotence.
Now we’re all kind of begging for scraps as many news outlets face a real scenario of folding.
To be sure, our industry’s problems are not all linked to online entities. Many newspapers have been purchased by financial firms and hedge funds who have zero interest in journalism. These properties have been stripped of assets and turned over for whatever they can get. I feel bad for journalists, readers and advertisers in those markets.
Here in Fredericksburg, we have remained comparatively healthy through the past decade of challenges. This publisher lives and works in the community he serves. We have expanded our offerings to include magazines, websites and other digital products, which has helped diversify our revenue.
And every problem presents opportunities. We are responding by adapting to how we publish, how we tell stories, and finding quicker ways to get information to market. We have published daily stories on our website and email newsletters and, yes, pushed them through our social media channels. On Monday, we did our first livestream coverage of a school board meeting.
Still, a lot of people have gotten into a bad habit of plopping down on the couch to watch cable television, Netflix, Hulu or any number of video subscription services, and largely forgotten about paying a small monthly fee to outlets that produce the most original news content of all — local newspapers.
Over the weekend, news came out of Australia that Google and Facebook may be forced to compensate the many news outlets that populate its platforms. That’s a start.
Let’s hope we’re not content to just feed off of what is dished out by the Google or Facebook algorithm, produced by who knows what source with who knows what motives.
As columnist Leonard Pitts put it: “Yes, it costs to have good, aggressive journalism. But it costs even more when you don’t.”
Here’s hoping that during this pandemic, along with hugs and handshakes, we also come to value our local news.