Why Quality Local Journalism is Infrastructure

News deserts in America are a democracy problem, not a business model problem. Plus, how and why Facebook keeps coddling dictators.

Last Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation announced that the winner of its two-year-long “100&Change” contest, which offered a massive $100 million grant for a single proposal aimed at solving a critical problem of our time, was Community Solutions, a nonprofit that steers a network of more than 80 cities committed to ending homelessness. The grant will enable the group to “help a critical mass of at least 75 geographically and politically diverse communities reach and sustain functional zero for chronic or veteran homelessness by 2026.” In announcing the grant, MacArthur Foundation president John Palfrey declared that “Homelessness is curable. For too long, homelessness has been viewed as intractable and pervasive, rather than a crisis worth solving. More than 568,000 people experienced homelessness on a given night in the United States, before the pandemic. Community Solutions has proven that people do not have to live this way. Its racially equitable response is primed for this moment.”

I’m not writing this today to attempt any kind of deep critique of MacArthur’s bet on Community Solutions, though I must say that the organization’s claims about the power of its “data-driven” approach and its focus on that intriguing term “functional zero” to define victory over precarity makes my teeth hurt. Community Solutions says it uses “by-name data” – a comprehensive, real-time list of every person in a community experiencing homelessness, collected and shared with their consent, to enable communities to better coordinate their responses and also catch people in need of stable housing as effectively as possible.  So I wonder: How do you get homeless people who don’t consent to being counted to participate? If they refuse help, do they get counted out of the “functional” zero goal? More fundamentally, as long as the rapacious version of capitalism that defines America today is left unchallenged, who thinks $100 million aimed at “curing” a symptom will end its cause?

I tuned in to watch the MacArthur announcement last week because I was rooting for one of the other finalists in the 100&Change competition, Report for America. That national service program, which was launched in 2018 by veteran journalists Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, had proposed to do something truly transformative for American communities and our democracy: to virtually eliminate America’s news deserts. Working with local newsrooms and philanthropies, Report for America recruits, trains, places and helps pay the salaries for talented emerging journalists to serve local communities. In 2020 they placed 226 reporters; their proposal to MacArthur envisioned placing 2,500 in more than 750 newsrooms nationwide. Beyond helping fill in news deserts, Report for America is also driving a big shift in representation, with more than 40% of its corps journalists of color and 2/3 women.

Why might it be more important to eliminate news deserts instead of ending functional homelessness in 75 cities? Because knowledge is power, and informed communities are more powerful at addressing all of their problems.

Unfortunately, too much of the conversation about the crisis in journalism is focused on the closing of newspapers and the loss of jobs as an economic problem. To be sure, the news about the news is frightful. The number of local reporting jobs has cratered from 455,000 in 1990 to just 183,200 in 2016. Many venerable old papers have closed, with 1,800l local papers gone or merged since 2004. Penelope Muse Abernathy, an expert on journalism at the University of North Carolina, says that as of 2018 171 US counties had no local paper and nearly half had only one, which was often just a weekly.

When you hear about these doleful statistics, it’s usually in the context of a discussion of the economics of the commercial news business. And it’s absolutely true that for a whole host of reasons, but mainly the internet, the old model of an ad-supported newspaper is no longer viable. But if we only imagine the survival of journalism in business terms, we’ll never get to where we need to be, which is recognizing, indeed remembering, its critical role as democratic infrastructure. And this is all the more painful at a moment when there’s rising attention to the precariousness of American democracy, more funding than ever for efforts to fight misinformation and disinformation, and a government that is making the case for spending trillions on many other kinds of infrastructure.

Here I’m channeling a set of arguments made by Victor Pickard, a media studies scholar and former senior research fellow at Free Press, whose excellent 2020 book Democracy Without Journalism: Confronting the Misinformation Society, made it to the top of my reading pile last weekend. He points out that there is a real correlation between a healthy local news ecosystem and levels of civic and voter engagement. After Seattle and Denver each lost one of their two major papers, the number of people getting involved with local civic groups or contacting their representatives declined significantly. A study of the 2010 midterm elections found that people living in districts without robust election coverage were less able to evaluate their congressional choices and thus less likely to vote. On the more positive side, economist Matthew Gentzkow has found that reading newspapers can mobilize as many as 13% of nonvoters to vote. Pickard also notes that since “voters in news deserts tend to base their vote more on national than local news [they] thus follow ‘partisan heuristics’ that lead to increased polarization.”

As we wonder how one-third of the America populace can be so woefully misinformed to believe The Former Guy’s lies about the election, or to doubt the truth about COVID-19, and we wring our hands about rising polarization, we need to connect more dots. And a big part of the problem with efforts to counter misinformation, as my friend Lara Putnam never tires at pointing out, is that with all the focus on fact-checking or algorithmic filtering, we’re not doing anywhere near enough about the “last-mile” problem in our media system. “There is no magic unicorn carrying messages to would-be voters,” she says. “There is infrastructure or its absence.” That is, until there are more locally-based reporters rooted in their communities developing and sustaining relationships with local audiences, we’re going to be living in a misinformation society where many people are prone to believing garbage churned out by partisan big lie machines. Attacking Big Tech alone and demanding that it stop doing things like “surveillance advertising” is like chopping at an invasive weed choking your favorite oak tree instead fertilizing the tree’s roots. It needs to be done but won’t be enough.

Pickard argues that our failure, compared to many other countries, to develop and sustain robust forms of public support for journalism has created the ideal conditions for what he calls the “misinformation society – an electorate that is increasingly served sensationalistic news coverage, clickbait, and degraded journalism instead of informative, fact-based, policy-related news.” And while he applauds how some funders have stepped into the gap, backing a wide array of nonprofit newsrooms across the country, he convinces me that we can’t really fix the news crisis until we understand it as core to our democracy crisis.

Compared to most other OECD member countries, the US spends a pittance on public media (the above chart is from that link). A $100 million from the MacArthur Foundation would be more than a drop in the bucket, but not nearly enough to foster a healthy public media system. Pickard suggests that a one percent tax on Facebook and Google’s net incomes, which would raise around $300 million a year, could “go a long way toward seeding an endowment for independent journalism,” and also points to a proposal from Free Press arguing for a broader tax on digital advertising that could raise $2 billion a year.

Can we make the case for such a shift in priorities? I think the answer is yes, but not if it’s framed in terms of saving journalists’ jobs. The worst thing about living in a misinformation society, where commercialized media has gotten so degraded, is how unpopular the press has become. This isn’t just because we had a president who regularly called mainstream media public enemy #1, it’s also because a lot of what passes for news today is sensationalism. At the same time, many good journalists tend to shy away from making value statements about everything, including their own role in society, preferring that their work somehow speak for itself. They’re also often wary of embracing their role as community organizers, for fear of being seen as pandering to special interests.

That said, there are always encouraging counter-trends worth attending to, like the broadening discussions about digital public infrastructure and civic renewal and experiments in other ways of strengthening civic trust. A few days ago, I had an in-depth conversation with Chris Horne, the founder and publisher of Akron’s news and culture magazine The Devil Strip, one of the first news cooperatives anywhere in America, and I’m looking forward to sharing an edited transcript of that conversation here soon.

-Related: The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the soon-to-be-launched Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst are holding a virtual conference May 10-14 called Reimagine the Internet, with one lunchtime panel a day and a great mix of presenters.

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Facebookization, Continued

Remember that scathing post from Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang from last September, describing how she knew she had “blood on my hands” for how the company had failed, time and again, to combat blatant political manipulation campaigns on its platform? Now she tells her whole story to Julia Carrie Wong of The Guardian, warning, “I hoped that when I made my departure post it might convince people to change things, but it hasn’t.” The problem: coordinated fake accounts used by authoritarian politicians like Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, taking advantage of a loophole in the company’s own rules against inauthentic behavior by fake Pages rather than individual users to artificially boost their apparent popularity. Zhang tried to pursue similar networks in more than a dozen countries.

Wong writes, “It was through pursuing these cases that Zhang came into repeated contact with Facebook’s policy bureaucracy. Some of Facebook’s policy staff act as a kind of legislative branch in Facebook’s approximation of a global government, crafting the rules and advising the community operations staff who enforce them; others are more like a privatized diplomatic corps, staffing offices around the world to liaise with local businesses, civil society groups, government regulators and politicians. Policy staff may also provide expertise in a given country’s or region’s language, history and political context in order to inform decisions made at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters. The policy team’s response to the cases that Zhang uncovered varied widely. Policy staffers pushed for networks of fake accounts in South Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine and Italy to be investigated quickly, while allowing others to languish for months without action.” One thing that Zhang is now recommending, in light of her experience, is that Facebook needs to create more separation between the staff responsible for enforcing the company’s rules and those responsible for those quasi-diplomatic relationships with local leaders.

At one point before Zhang quit her job, Guy Rosen, the company’s head of integrity, told her that its threat intelligence branch would only prioritize campaigns in the US/Western Europe and foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran. Zhang responded that one of her managers had told her that the world outside that “was basically the wild west with [her] as the part-time dictator in her spare time.” Rosen praised her for doing the work, adding, “I wish resources were unlimited.” This was at a time when Facebook had $54 billion cash on hand and annual profits of almost $24 billion, Wong notes drily.

The one thing that appears to have changed company behavior in the face of such lowered priorities is negative press attention. “I’ve been told directly by leadership that I should ignore these cases because if they are impactful, we’ll eventually receive PR flak over it and motivate a change,” Zhang said during a presentation at a 2020 internal summit focused on issues in civic integrity, according to her notes. “The assumption is that if a case does not receive media attention, it poses no societal risk … What is our responsibility when societal risk diverges from PR risk?” Zhang turned down a $64,000 severance package from Facebook in order to have the freedom to make these revelations.

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Odds and Ends

The one piece to read on the unionization failure at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama is this one by Jane McAlevey in The Nation.

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