The rise of the American news desert

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A recent Politico study, which found that Donald Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in areas without a robust local media, put numbers to something I’ve felt intuitively since the 2016 election: thatthe nationalization of the media (a movement that includes websites like Vox) has been good for news junkies but not as good for those who want and need news about their local communities.

(A necessary caveat: The Politico study has some flaws in how it defines a “news desert.” Nieman Labs has more on that point. But I find the high-level point of Politico’s study — Trump was more successful in places where there was a legitimate news vacuum of one form or another — persuasive.)

The slow death of local media has contributed to the epistemic closure in conservative circles, especially in rural areas. That’s led to the proliferation of so-called “fake news” stories, widely spread on Facebook, which are sometimes outright untrue and sometimes just a hugely misleading presentation of a true news story.

No one has been sure how to puncture that conservative media bubble, to combat the narratives that lots of rural white voters have come to believe are true. It’s impossible to contradict fake news with “real news” when the sources offering that real news aren’t trusted.

But local media outlets, which used to carry that sort of clout within their communities, are being economically strangled by an environment that increasingly requires turning to nationally syndicated programs and stories, rather than the sort of local focus that used to mark these outlets.

So if the solution to these problems probably involves more robust local media — and specifically more robust local media online — well, good luck figuring out how to pay for that.

When I’ve talked to rural white voters since the 2016 election, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to discuss any stories from the “mainstream” media — and sometimes even from Fox News. Many rural voters tendto dismiss facts presented in the national news media because those facts don’t square with the world they see. (I wrote a lot more about this in the wake of the 2016 election.)

A lot of what these voters believe is drummed up by hysterical conspiracy-mongering, rooted in racism. The famous claim (boosted by Trump himself!) of 3 million undocumented immigrants voting in the recent election started out on Infowars (run by the conspiracistAlex Jones) and then spread like wildfire through long social media chains filled with people who are apt to believe the worst about undocumented immigrants.

But in local communities, there are also facts that don’t seem to square at all with what the national media itself reports. If you’re living in a place with an unprecedented heroin addiction epidemic, the national news media saying that crime is down nationwide — which was true until a very recent uptick — might seem suspect. And even if the national media has become more interested in the opioid crisis in the wake of 2016, it still has a whiff of too little, too late.

But national trends reported on in national publications can also fail to square with local trends that might be reported on in local publications. Take unemployment numbers. In communities where within living memory it was possible to make a real, living wage at a plant or factory, those jobs have often been replaced with service industry jobs that rarely pay as well (as outlined brilliantly in Amy Goldstein’s book Janesville). And that’s not to say those jobs can’t be good jobs, but, instead, to say that they’re not at the center of these communities’ identities in the way those old factory jobs were. Remember factory towns?

The front page of the Progress-Index, a local newspaper published in Petersburg, Virginia, catches the attention of former Mayor Howard Myers while shopping on August 25, 2016. The cover story focuses on the city’s budget deficits.
Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This creates a divide between the news media — which nationalizes a little more with every year and is primarily produced by people who live in urban, often coastal areas, where economic output is up — and smaller, rural communities. Even if you believe what you read in the national media is true in a rural community, it’s easy to believe it’s not true for you. In the past, this meant turning to the local paper or TV station to reflect your local experiences. But in the 2010s, those outlets are less robust than ever.

Our national news media doesn’t do a great job of covering every problem within coastal urban areas. But when it comes to impoverished communities in those coastal urban areas, at least the national news media is somewhat aware they exist. Rural areas just don’t have that kind of prominent window into their issues.

Even 20 years ago, a local newspaper or radio station would have been doing the work of digging into a community’s worries and concerns. That was deeply vital in rural areas, where people can be spread out across great geographic distances, but even the sound of a familiar local voice on the radio can provide a kind of stabilizing mechanism.

When I was growing up in South Dakota, everyone in my community listed toWNAX, the AM radio station out of Yankton, for weather reports, farm reports, and the banter of friendly South Dakotans who didn’t live too far away. The station boasted a number of hosts and fairly well-known local media personalities, and did its best to cover news stories and big sporting events from a local perspective. WNAX is unusual for the area in many ways. For one thing, much of its programming more or less remains intact, even if the hosts have changed throughout the decades. For another, it’s still creating local media personalities whom many listeners know and trust.

But WNAX’s primetime lineup is something different altogether. Rather than the country music breaks helmed by local DJs that I remember from my youth, it’s now several straight hours of nationally syndicated conservative talk radio, followed by Coast to Coast AM, a sort of proto-conspiracy radio show, focused on the eerie and unknown. There’s little attempt to syndicate more left-wing — or even more moderate — content because it wouldn’t last long on the station.

And numerous other rural stations besides WNAX that were once run by locals now broadcast nonstop syndicated talk programs. The trust built up around those stations has been transferred to conservative talk superstars, simply because airing syndicated programs is cheaper than employing a bunch of local hosts in a media environment where ad dollars must stretch ever further. And that’s without bringing up situations like the rise of Sinclair, a conservative-leaning media group purchasing numerous local stations.

The same has happened to local TV stations and newspapers. Sure, they still employ reporters and news anchors and the like, but they’re increasingly reliant on wire copy, or on nationally syndicated columns or programs, often conservative in bent. The days when those outlets reflected their communities first and foremost have been lost in an onslaught of even more national news, which, as mentioned, often doesn’t feel as if it originates in the same universe these rural folks occupy.

At its worst, the divide between the national news and local realities creates an environment in which baldly false rumors flourish and true information is disregarded because it doesn’t square with what rural media consumers can see in front of their eyes. I wouldn’t argue that the divide makes racist rumormongering possible, but it does destroy a necessary counterbalance to those rumors.

Local media can place news from the national sphere in local contexts — sure, unemployment is down everywhere, but people are still struggling here, for instance. It can tell stories about local immigrant communities, or LGBTQ residents, or any number of other people affected by Trump’s policies, making them seem less like far-off citizens of a parallel universe. That creates a necessary bridge between worlds.

During a rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, on December 28, 2015, Donald Trump criticized the town’s newspaper for its campaign coverage and endorsement of rival candidate Chris Christie.
Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Conservatives have spent decades effectively discrediting the national media among their partisans. But that effort wouldn’t have been as effective if there weren’t space for it to flourish, in placeswhere local news organizations have been strangled or cut to the bone.

This is not to say that local media outlets aren’t still doing terrific work in covering their communities. Local newspapers, especially, continue to report on city council meetings and mayoral corruption and all manner of big stories that don’t registeron a national scale but are important on a local scale. Yet these newsrooms are stretched a little more thinly with every new year.

The worst thing is that there’s no obvious solution. Local online media outlets traditionally struggle, and the loss of the paid subscription model when it comes to online outlets has caused even further deterioration of newspapers. Some media companies have pursued “hyperlocalization,” but only in fits and starts. There isn’t any evidence that starting a robust local media outlet online can work in the long term, and so far, one of the best examples we have is the ultraconservative Tennessee Star, as explained in this New York magazine piece.

What we’re seeing might be what Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski described to my colleague Sean Illing in 2016 as the result of years of systemic gutting of journalistic organizations. Binkowski said:

I really think that what we’re seeing now with this influx of fake news is the end result of the systemic defunding of media entities for the past 10 years, if not more. We could see this happening in slow motion. We all knew that as trusted media entities began producing less investigative stories, less hard news stories, an information vacuum would emerge into which bullshit and propaganda would drop. This was inevitable.

And yet Binkowski also offers hope for the future — in the idea that the internet is still quite young, as information delivery vehicles go. In that case, it might behoove those thinking about the particular problem of fake news to consider that if all politics is local, all news media might ultimately be too.

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