Law in the Internet Society

Legacy Media and Corporate Control: The Failed Promise of the Digital Age

-- By MichaelHughes - 26 Nov 2023


Local journalism is collapsing with disastrous effects on our civil society. As small outlets become unprofitable the information diet of the typical American is more and more dominated by a handful of corporate news organizations which can afford to keep the lights on.

Rather than ushering in a new era of free access to information the mass adoption of the internet has been fatal to vital information flows. As our society grapples with the consequences of social media, misinformation, and the politics of the internet age it is critical that we reflect on why at a time when the transmission of information is faster, cheaper, and easier than ever we find ourselves in a national news desert.

The Value of Local News

Robust local reporting is essential to a well-functioning democracy and civil society. In order for the regulatory functions of democracy to work citizens must be both mobilized to vote and sufficiently well-informed to select between different candidates and policy platforms.

This is especially true in the United States where many administrative and executive positions, such as attorneys general, comptrollers, and sheriffs, are elected offices. Without local reports willing and able to investigate stories of corruption, incompetence, or simple political dishonesty voters cannot possibly make intelligent choices about who should be staffed in these positions. If voters are forced to either choose randomly or vote the party line the situation becomes ripe for graft and toxic machine politics.

The Death of Local News

The University of North Carolina has been tracking the systemic decline of local news organizations across the country. Between 2004 and 2018 the US lost nearly 1,800 local newspapers. However the headline losses understate the decompositions of the local news in that timeframe. Many of the papers that are still in operation have become ghosts of their former selves. These papers have remained in operation only by relentlessly cutting costs. Decreasing numbers of reporters means that they cover fewer stories in less depth.

This process has been worsened by the arrival of private equity into the market. Investment firms have bought up dying local news organizations for the sole purpose of ringing a few last drops of profit for them. These vulture funds have reduced pillars of civic engagement to little more than crude vehicles for advertisements.

The cause of this decline is a simple case of shifting market dynamics. Under the logic of the markets the value created by media is defined by the attention it can grab, rather than the information it provides. American consumers have shifted their attention away from local media. As the US was losing nearly 1,800 papers local papers lost almost 50 million readers. The plain reality is that these local outlets cannot compete in the modern world. They are being strangled to make way for new hyper-efficient hyper-profitable media enterprises.

The New Corporate Media

It is tragically ironic that the best source for information on the decline of local news is the New York Times, a massive global news corporation. As local news dies the NYT has flourished. In 2023 the company reported that it had amassed 10 million subscribers globally. Between its news, games, podcast, recipes, and shopping guides the NYTs rakes in over half a billion dollars in revenue annually.

The NYT has thrived by being a global paper for a global audience. It has fully divorced itself even from New York City itself, carrying almost no local news coverage for the largest city in America.

Still the merely corporate NYT looks like a beacon of civic engagement compared to other actors that have filled the void left by dying local media. Increasingly apparently independent papers and news stations are in fact being used as sock puppets by politically motivated groups. National attention was called to this issue when the public became aware of Sinclair Media Group, an obscure TV news giant which uses its vast network of stations to push conservative propaganda. Wherever we look we see that invaluable local information is being replaced by propaganda, commodified news, and misinformation.

The Failed Promise of the Digital Age

Compare the death of local news to the success of the Wikimedia foundation. In 2023 anybody with an internet connection can learn about any topic that could possibly cross their mind for free on Wikipedia. With a collaborative structure and donation based funding Wikipedia looks like the instantiation of the free and open internet we were promised.

Wikipedia has flourished where news failed because of the larger economic structure they both exist within. Wikipedia exists on the margins, relying largely on hobbyist editors contributing their time and knowledge for free while sustaining themselves with full time work elsewhere. It scraps together its operating costs from donations. It exists on the margins of the economy partially exempted from market forces.

News organizations cannot do the same. They require full time professional staffs to continuously sort fact from fiction and provide high quality news to their readers. Under our current economic system they are a business which must compete to survive. The internet alerted the structure of the market and allowed the most efficient and profitable papers and stations to explode in size, snuffing out all competition. We cannot solve the problems in the news business with technology. When the market demands that information be locked behind paywalls no amount of clever code will change it.

To solve the crisis in local news we might look to the few islands of informational freedom in our society. Institutions such as libraries, public schools, and universities thrive because they are exempted from the logic of markets through public largesse. Providing public funds to smaller news organizations could provide a solution. However state involvement in media raises the specter of state corruption and censorship like we recently saw in Poland under the PiS.

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r3 - 21 Jan 2024 - 04:51:29 - MichaelHughes
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