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The changing media landscape in America

The nature of the local and national media landscape continues to be buffeted by economic, social and political pressures.

From social media eroding revenue to concerns over a post-truth epistemological crisis, media outlets are contending with questions both internal and external. Where does this all lead? What should communities expect from news and information outlets, and what role do policy makers have in answering these questions?

To mull over these questions, the Wire brought together some of the foremost thought leaders in Washington State media. Frank Blethen (Publisher, Seattle Times), Mark Baumgarten, (Managing Editor, Crosscut), Ross Reynolds (Executive Producer for Community Engagement, KUOW) and Betsy Cowles (Chairman, Cowles Company) joined Wire Publisher DJ Wilson at the 2020 Re-Wire Policy Conference to discuss how media is evolving and what that evolution has meant for Washington State.

See the video above or click this link to watch the panel.

Here are a few highlights.

Blethen on the financial strain plaguing newspapers and the policy solutions he proposes to ease the strain:

When you look back, what’s been happening is really pretty simple. The business model isn’t broken, it’s evolving but it’s not broken. It’s 30-40 years of consolidation and disinvestment by absentee owners and then more recently, the monopolization of digital advertising. Essentially, we’ve been creating news deserts as a result. Washington State has a bunch of news deserts and we have a lot of ghost newspapers – newspapers with so little local content that you really aren’t getting anything out of them.

There is no way newspapers and a strong news ecosystem will exist without some government subsidy and government protection. And we’ve got to reform the internet for the public good and allow newspapers and other media organizations to make money on the internet. Last but not least, we need to reform the ownership so that we can prohibit the kind of consolidation and disinvestment our generation has gone through.”

Cowles on the differing economic contexts for TV and print news operations, as well as the downstream implications for democracy:

We had very few layoffs and furloughs on the TV side … But with [print journalists] the ways newspapers work, the size of the newsrooms, the things they can cover; it’s very different. When you look at democracy, that can be a very scary thing over time that small cities, many of them don’t even have newspapers. So our local television stations are it for them.”

Baumgarten assesses the different corners of the media landscape and the civic costs of a disconnected public.

I think the environment for news right now is that, it really is mixed. You have some entities that are doing well. I think television is doing well, the big national legacy brands are doing well, and public media is doing well … But where we’re really seeing things fall off a cliff are with our smaller, more rural communities. There are a lot of efforts being put forth through journalism nonprofits to bring reporters to those communities. But you’re really not seeing a marketplace that seems able to support papers in very small communities – smaller than Yakima or Walla Walla.

I’m optimistic about where I sit, but the overall landscape to me is fraught … Unless everything that Frank listed happens, we’re going to continue to see a pretty large percentage of the population that is not connected to its local civic conversation, and that is where people connect to reality. I think what we’re seeing right now is the fallout of when you have a large percentage of people that are disconnected from reality.”

Reynolds put this media moment in context. He says that crises of late have underscored the resilience of urban public radio stations and the precarity of rural public radio stations:

I think the kind of disbelief and lack of epistemological agreement on what’s reality is wearing on all of us. It’s certainly creating huge civic problems. On the other hand, it’s been quite good for public radio. I think all of our brands are embraced by more people because they see all of the bad information out there and they realize that we are a counter to that. I’ve been a perpetual pessimist about public radio. I thought satellite radio was going to kill us and then I thought the web was going to kill us. This past year has been pretty amazing.

Going into the shutdown, having to work from home, worrying about whether we continue to get the bulk of support from listeners; we did a million dollar pledge day earlier this year, which was unprecedented. Our latest audience numbers are higher than they’ve ever been. We’ve got about 410,000 listeners a week … But I think there is a whole issue in other parts of the state when it comes to the information they’re able to get on the local basis. You see that even in public radio stations.

Public radio stations that are in trouble are stations in rural areas that have been relying on Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding. They can be kind of on the edge, they don’t have a lot of other resources to go to.”

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