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Nov. 21, 2019, 2:19 p.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   November 21, 2019

The local news report that PEN America released this week is packed with the grim statistics you’ve seen elsewhere, including all over Nieman Lab — The U.S. has lost more than 1,800 local news outlets since 2004; many of the papers that remain face consolidation and cost cutting by profit-minded hedge fund owners (just this week…); civic engagement declines when local news does; and to make matters worse, most Americans are oblivious to the problem: 71 percent think their local news outlets are doing well financially. (However, when they’re informed that this is in fact not the case, they’re more likely to pay up.)

It’s a (not so refreshing) refresher on all that if you needed it, but the report also includes case studies of local communities; PEN enlisted journalists from those regions to write specifically about how their communities have been affected as local news declines. Here are some findings:

— Southeastern North Carolina: Jeremy Borden writes about how two communities — Robeson County and Cumberland County — have both lost local news sources. The poorer Robeson County has been more adversely affected than the larger, wealthier Cumberland County. In 2014 and 2015, the Fayetteville Observer reported frequently on a chicken processing company’s plans to open a new plant in Cumberland County. “As the company was making its play for Cumberland County, the Observer published about 170 news and opinion items that mentioned the plant,” Borden writes. “The Observer’s reporting, alongside the less-than-enthusiastic public response, were key factors in the reluctance of local officials to welcome the plant and of Sanderson Farms’ ultimate decision to build in neighboring Robeson County instead.” Robeson County has the second-highest poverty rate in North Carolina; nearly a third of its residents live below the poverty line.

The Fayetteville Observer was the largest independently owned newspaper in North Carolina for more than 100 years — until 2016, when Gatehouse bought it and rounds of buyouts began. (GateHouse and Gannett then merged this year.)

As of October, the Observer listed 19 news and opinion reporters and editors on its website. No one holds an investigative reporting title…The reductions are noticeable. Christine Michaels, head of the business association the Greater Fayetteville Chamber, says that the results of big decisions affecting the business community are usually still reported — but sometimes too late for the community to weigh in. She points out that plans for the construction of a new minor league baseball stadium in downtown Fayetteville weren’t covered until most major decisions had already been made, leaving broad swathes of the community out of the discussion. “We have a big Facebook following, a large email subscriber list,” she says, “but it’s not going to hit a broader base of the population.”

The options for Robeson County–specific news are more limited, since the Observer has also sliced its regional coverage. In some ways, its residents are lucky: They have The Robesonian, which has a circulation of 5,000 and is published 5 days a week. It has a staff of 3.5 news reporters and 2 sports reporters; its editor, who’s been at the paper for over 20 years, says he fills slots the best he can, including a lot of local crime coverage.

On a recent day, [editor Donny Douglas] was unhappy with the way the Thursday edition had turned out, taking issue, in particular, with the front-page articles: one a national wire story about a drop in the stock market — Douglas prefers only local news on the front page — and the other a press release fashioned as a news story, written by a former Robesonian reporter who now works for the county hospital system.

Douglas’s reality — a small staff that doesn’t often delve deeply into malfeasance in its pages — is not new to small-town newspaper editors. Fiona Morgan, a North Carolina–based news consultant, said many see the issue facing local media purely in terms of economics or, “‘before everything worked and now it doesn’t,’ but many community newspapers have never done the kind of accountability reporting associated with bigger newspapers,” she said. “Not all local papers see it as their role to question authority in that way. You’ve always had news deserts even in places where there are outposts. Some local newspapers have been failing to provide aggressive accountability coverage for a long time, especially in rural communities. Where there’s no competition, there’s no pressure to do better.”

— Detroit: Martina Guzmán writes about the failures of Detroit’s legacy media outlets to critically investigate the development of Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, in which the arena’s owners, the billionaire Illitch family, “brokered a deal with the city that redirected $324 million in state tax funds, meant in part for Detroit Public Schools, to build a sports stadium in downtown Detroit.” The deal was also supposed to include “a development called the District Detroit, creating five new neighborhoods with a footprint of fifty city blocks of land in downtown Detroit, replete with residences, retail, and entertainment”; five years later, it remains unbuilt and filled with parking lots.

While local news covered the deal extensively at the time it was struck, that coverage, especially by legacy outlets, was largely uncritical. An independent data analysis conducted for the Detroit Equity Action Lab at Wayne State University [Ed. note: This study remains unpublished.], which examined more than 200 articles about the new arena published from 2013 to 2015, revealed that 80 percent of the stories by the city’s major papers and TV stations — the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Click on Detroit, Crain’s Detroit Business, Michigan Radio, WDET, WXYZ, and Fox 2 News — had a pro-development slant, framing the deal as positive and offering little or no critical analysis. By contrast, articles from newer or alternative outlets with less reach — Bridge Magazine, Detroit Metro Times, and Motor City Muckraker — were more numerous, and only 3.6 percent were pro-development.

It wasn’t until 2019, when HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel aired a damning exposé on the arena, that “every major Detroit newspaper and local television station followed up and started raising questions.”

When established local media outlets overlook volunteer and community-led efforts, they miss out on important stories. “I don’t think the Detroit media did its job vetting the details of the deal,” says Aaron Mondry, the editor of Curbed Detroit, a digital outlet focused on Detroit street life, housing, and development. “It’s a generally known fact that sports stadiums are not good investments.” Mondry points out that the inadequate coverage has repercussions far beyond this one project. “If the media isn’t doing its due diligence on some of the biggest development projects in the city,” he says, “then residents should be skeptical of everything journalists produce. If we missed that, then what else are we missing, what else are we not looking into?”

The full report is here.

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