Smith: Election offers reminder of information’s value, news industry’s decline

Not more than 20 years ago, our nation was an information oasis in our information hungry world.

Today, we live in a desert, too. I was reminded of this often during the presidential election season and especially Tuesday night when the pollsters completely misread the mood of much of the American electorate.

Here’s a quick history lesson. At one point, the Missouri legislature and government had a dozen reporters watching its every move from Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield and Jefferson City. Today, most of what happens in our capital is unknown to the general public unless it’s called out by the opposition party.

The same is true in cities and villages across the state. There are fewer journalists to challenge government officials who want to close public meetings, take controversial actions in secret and otherwise obscure government business.

More important, there are thousands of decisions made in public that go uncovered due to a lack of resources. For many years, there’s been nobody covering countless public meetings.

Nobody checking court records. Nobody looking at police records. Nobody watching special interest groups. Nobody checking – you name it.

The reason is quite simple. There is a dramatic financial downturn in the news industry because traditional print advertising has moved to the internet, where advertisers can see who is reading and responding to their solicitations.

Less money for traditional advertising has meant deep downsizing of news staffs. Newspaper layoffs in the state of Missouri number in the thousands.

Revenue has shifted. If you look at the income for companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, there’s a direct correlation to the money missing from the pockets of the nation’s legacy media companies.

Google is now a first stop for many news consumers. But it accumulates much of its news by scraping the websites of dying legacy media companies. Facebook does much the same but is also packed with lots of misleading and false information from special interest groups and advertisers. Amazon simply wants to sell you stuff.

The best of the legacy media companies – the New York Times and The Washington Post – are based on the East Coast. Newer companies, like CNN and Bloomberg, are based there, too. Google, Facebook and Amazon are on the West Coast.

So there is a giant disconnect with the rest of the nation. That’s why it was not surprising that so many pollsters got it wrong on election night. You simply can’t report and predict accurately when you’re not in touch.

Many European countries have recognized the financial transition process in the legacy media, and have helped underwrite budgets. But that’s not true in America, where journalists are viewed by many politicians as a source of society’s problems.

Too, American journalists practice under a libertarian philosophy, seeking strict independence from any potential influencers. That system works when you have a healthy revenue stream, but not when you’re dying.

Thomas Jefferson once said that he’d prefer a functioning press to a functioning government. The reason is that the job of the press is to speak truth to power and to put all of the facts before the electorate.

Contrast that with today’s lifestyle. Most wake up without a newspaper and go to their online accounts, where they’re in touch with people like themselves and fed information from sites that agree with their political and social views.

When people don’t know the facts, they tend to make them up. And the politicians are waiting there to help them do it. Witness the hundreds of flyers that I received from politicians during this past election season that went from my mailbox directly into my fireplace.

The most financially healthy legacy media company is The Washington Post, which is now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The company is creating a worldwide news organization with a financial engine backed by the brilliance of Amazon.

While inspiring to watch, the experiment does little to help us understand what is going on in Missouri.

If the press is going to survive in the America between New York and California, it will be in a new form.

That leaves it up to us. And that’s why I’m so thankful for those who’ve given financial support, especially the Kauffman Foundation, to our new venture, Missouri Business Alert.

You are reading a small but bold new experiment in the information desert.


Randall Smith

Randall D. Smith is the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and is the founder of Missouri Business Alert. He can be reached at smithrandall@missouri.edu.

 

 

 

 


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