Even before the pandemic, small and alternative media outlets all over were staring at their own demise. For innumerable publications both in print and online, the ongoing coronavirus crisis may just prove to be the finishing blow. I can hear them now: “So what? Journalism has been dying a slow death for some time now.”
This is, in fact, a big, big deal. The effects, much like those of climate change, have already been felt. Newsrooms have shrunk or disappeared and smaller publications reporting on their own communities from the inside-out have vanished. The result? A diluted brand of zero-risk reporting that fails to do journalism’s number one job — inform the public.
For context, note that as recently as 1983, some 50 corporations jockeyed for control over the majority of American media outlets. By 2011, 90% of American media was owned by just six corporations. By 2017, that same giant slice of our country’s means of disseminating of information was down to just five corporations. Fortunately, the internet gives us many more options that have occupied the relatively tiny slice of the pie we call independent media.
But real problems persist here, too. As businesses, these entities struggle when the economy does, especially now. With so much online content out there, there’s the increasing risk of readers running into something doubling as news that’s actually the work of a self-described writer with no journalistic training. Journalism as a trade was one of the better-paying careers just a generation ago. Today, it’s treated like a dinosaur, despite the fact that with more info than ever, it could be fairly argued that we need more objective reporting and informed whistleblowing than ever.
A food reporter canned in restaurant-rich Charleston is one thing (and potentially problematic in its own way, don’t get me wrong). I’m talking about trained reporters holding those in power accountable and looking after the masses by arming them with all of the objective knowledge they need to make educated decisions. Without good journalism, we might as well be a flock of sheep waiting for our next directive.
The Association of Alternative Newsmedia is one of the country’s great journalism collectives. It’s made up of member publications all over the map, operating with minimal budgets to bring you the unadulterated news. In many ways, they’re doing the fine work we’ve come to expect from The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.
Writers at smaller, stretched-to-the-limit-financially outlets are still winning Pulitzer’s. They’re exposing sex abuse, proving the greatness of long-form reporting, and showing us what things are really like, often sparking real change. Like any good branch of journalism, it’s all-inclusive and empowers the audience with knowledge. And it’s about more than just a putting presidential quote into context. Quality coverage means the environment, education, public lands, corruption, legislation, unlawful police, and even the actual real-time state of and appropriate way to respond to a pandemic like the coronavirus.
And they really are going away. We lost the Village Voice in 2018, an award-winning NYC paper thought to be almost immortal. If the pandemic plays out according to plan, we’ll lose many more.
Outlets like these depend on advertising and, in some cases, creative collaborative events or online subscriptions. Now, more than ever, they’re trying to stay afloat through donations. Many are holding on with reduced staffs and story turnout, but as the economic vice of the pandemic continues to turn, it will squash or greatly reduce much of this local journalism. All over the country, home pages are adorned with pleading banners.
We live in an era where owning even a large, seemingly stable paper is more of a hobby than a wise business plan. Just look at Bezos and the Washington Post, which he acquired in 2013. Further, we live under an administration that treats objective reporting like witchcraft. It’s an incredibly dangerous approach that’s led to distrust, the proliferation of hoaxes, and the phrase that’s become so popular we’re practically numb to it these days, “fake news.”
Far too many readers don’t know where to turn for the truth. Worse, what’s readily available is a shortlist of 24-hour news porn purveyors like Fox News and CNN (and that’s assuming you have cable or internet access). Think of it like your diet or diversity in general: If you eat the same thing every day or interact with the same group of people all the time, you’re not much more than a simple machine.
You need good reporting like you need fresh fruits and vegetables (or frozen if the pandemic says so for now) and vibrant social circles. If Wyoming gets as many senators as California, then the town of Athens, Georgia, is entitled to its own media outlet. These outlets enrich neighborhoods by keeping a close ear to its citizenry. There’s hardly anything more democratic.
But the pervasive myth today — and really since the early aughts — is that there’s too much info out there. Wrong. There’s a sea of poorly reported content and clickbait masquerading as valuable info and news. More and more of it falls under the giant umbrella of just a handful of corporations, offering only the illusion of variety and choice. There’s a mere trickle of media that’s truly free of any higher power and can therefore do its job without fear of irking executives, pissing off investors, or being cut loose entirely.
What to Do
This is a problem that’s been brewing for decades but the pandemic is making things much, much worse. There has hardly been a better time to support the things you love and deserve, like music and thoughtful, well-researched writing. Here are a few more things you can do to help the independent media cause:
- Pay for the content if you value it by donating or feeding the paywall.
- Support trusted outlets like the Associated Press.
- Donate to gift guides and other seasonal fundraising events your local weekly curates.
- Monitor the FCC through watchdog and advocacy groups like Free Press.
- Write your larger area paper if you’re unhappy with coverage.
- Support news publications with ombudsmen, or actual people whose job is to reach out to the community.
- Keep your standards high for what you consider news, as it informs so much of what you do.
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