If you’ve been missing out on some local news events lately, it’s likely because local news is increasingly underreported. A report from the University of North Carolina found that between 2005 and 2020, the U.S. lost 2,100 — or roughly one-quarter — of its local community newspapers. Four years later, this trend toward “news deserts” continues unabated. In Virginia, many local papers have reduced both their number of print editions and full-time journalists. Having spent more than 30 years in the newspaper industry, I saw the beginnings of this firsthand, but never thought the downfall would come this hard or this fast.
The consequences of this unraveling of local newspapers are increasingly obvious in an age of misinformation.
As then-”Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd interjected during an interview with Trump White House counselor Kellyanne Conway in 2017, “Alternative facts are not facts — they’re falsehoods.”
Similarly, last year, Fox News reached a $787.5 million settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought against the network by Dominion Voting Systems for airing false claims that the companies’ voting machines had rigged results in the 2020 election. Fox acknowledged the claims to be false without granting an apology, seeming to indicate that some media news outlets may not have the best interests of their audience or American democracy in mind.
While it’s unimaginable that our nation’s Founding Fathers would have been so naive as to think that lies couldn’t come from the lips of politicians or be promulgated by newspapers, they did envision our free press as a primary and essential check on the integrity of our democracy. There is a reason why the First Amendment comes first. As the saying goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Behind our founders’ reliance on robust news reporting was the assumption that those efforts would be supported by equally robust advertising. This too has changed. Tech titans like Google, Meta and X (formerly Twitter) are arguably today’s biggest publishers. Make no mistake: Big tech is in the business of content and advertising, with artificial intelligence-powered algorithms making content curation decisions about what viewers do — and don’t — see. The growth of news deserts demonstrates what happens when local talent is scraped away by tech companies. Local news becomes the proverbial baby thrown out with the bath water.
Congress introduced a bipartisan bill in July 2023 addressing the issue somewhat. The Community News and Small Business Support Act would provide local newsrooms with funding over five years to support hiring and retaining reporters. Additionally, small businesses could receive tax credits of up to $10,000 over five years for advertising in local news outlets. However, that bill is still making its way through Congress, and legislators haven’t taken action to regulate how big tech firms can use local news content. Meanwhile, Canada and Australia have grappled with forcing social media companies to pay for republishing local news, with mixed results.
If all of this sounds pretty dark, that’s because it is. On the other hand, dark clouds can have silver linings. At Virginia Business, our audience is the commonwealth’s business community. As others have pulled back from business reporting, we’ve leaned in and added to the magazine’s staff and coverage over the past few years. Both subscribers and advertisers are heading in our direction.
After a couple of decades of going down digital and social media rabbit holes, advertisers are tiring of measuring bots instead of people. The tech titans have frequently proven to be unstable in both measurement methods and leadership temperament. The quality of the context in which brand messages appear really does matter. Quality is defined by truthful, factual, timely and careful reporting.
As we enter 2024, Virginia Business remains strong. We thank you for your loyal readership and your unflagging advertising support. As always, we are committed to our mission of being Virginia’s source for business intelligence. Our hope is that the rest of the local news will also find its way to you. It is essential to our democracy.