While the COVID pandemic threatens another struggling institution – the newspaper – it is already widening a deadly divide between the informed and misinformed.
The printed newspaper was always a daily miracle. A magic trick where yesterday’s events appear on thousands of front pages the very next morning, to be read and consumed over coffee and a doughnut.
Well, today it’s time to show all our cards. In light of a pandemic that threatens so much of what we love and cherish, it’s time to reveal all those slights of hand, to show you how the sausage is made, to take you behind the scenes. Because today that miracle – not just dailies, but alt-weeklies, monthlies, even quarterlies – is under serious threat, the pandemic shutdown sucking the air from the last lifeboats of an industry that was already struggling in a digital ocean of cheap ad space and do-it-yourself social media promotions.
StoryBoard‘s first press run, in September of 2018
In order to survive, we must “communicate to the public the value of local journalism, the challenges it faces, and the importance of supporting it.”
In direct concert with the pandemic itself, we are seeing layoffs, shutdowns, cutbacks, you-name-it, all over the country and right here at home. As announced this week, our free, print, alternative-weekly Memphis Flyer is temporarily cutting their print schedule to every other week, while also reducing their overall print distribution. Here at StoryBoard, we are joining other news organizations nationwide in a public struggle with the decision of when or if we should move forward with our next scheduled print issue, abandon print altogether, and how we will survive at all going forward.
To print or not to print. It is a question fraught with anxiety, as it gets to the heart of one of our core missions as a printed source of information. Because while many of us lament over what we hope is a temporary slow-down of print news and our morning routine, the decline has potentially deadly consequences for disinvested communities.
The same population that already struggles in poverty, suffers in food deserts, lives with blight and has poor access to reliable transportation is being further cut off from news and information that could save them and others from potentially contracting and spreading the coronavirus.
“Total annihilation,” writer Joshua Benton said. “Coronavirus may just be the end for many alt-weeklies.”
An Issue of Economics and Logistics
This is not a question of popularity or hunger for the news. Quite the opposite. The appetite and need for news coverage has not been this great since 9/11.
The threats to print news are rather simple in terms of numbers. Advertising and event-announcement revenues took a precipitous drop with event cancellations and business closures, and pickup spots have been cut off as nonessential businesses have had to close their doors.
“Our local, independent company is sustained to a great degree by advertising dollars from other local businesses,” said Anna Traverse Fogle, CEO of Contemporary Media, the parent company of the Memphis Flyer. For her March 20 editorial We Could Use a Little Help, she went on to say “The entertainment and dining industries are experiencing radical changes already — and they happen to be our core advertisers.”
Anna’s plea reinforced a report by the nonprofit online journal NeimanLab, dedicated to pushing to the future of journalism, which described the threat in more dire terms: “Total annihilation,” writer Joshua Benton said in the March 19 report. “Coronavirus may just be the end for many alt-weeklies.” The statement from Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger echoed the Flyer‘s: “Ninety percent of our revenue — advertising, ticketing fees, and our own events — is directly tied to people getting together in groups. The coronavirus situation has virtually eliminated this income all at once.”
Subsequent reports continue ringing the alarm sirens, from The Atlantic (The Coronavirus Is Killing Local News) The Washington Post (Local journalism needs a coronavirus stimulus plan, too), Columbia Journalism Review (America’s local newspapers confront an apocalypse), the New Yorker (The Fate of the News in the Age of the Coronavirus) and the New York Times (Local News Outlets Dealt a Crippling Blow by This Biggest of Stories), which reminds us:
Alternative weeklies and daily papers in small and midsize cities across the United States were already suffering because of the recession last decade, the migration of readers from print to online and the decline of the advertising business. Since 2004, roughly one-fourth of American newspapers — more than 2,000 — have been lost to mergers or shutdowns, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina. Most were weeklies.~New York Times, March 23, 2020
Two weeks later, the issue lies in not only the falling revenue stream, but also in the logistics of getting the graphics, images and written words from laptop to print, from printing facility to distribution facility, from delivery trucks to shops and news racks. Factor in the number of places that have been shut down, and suddenly most of our print journals’ distribution channels have been cut off.
“The snap recession caused by the efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic have laid bare the fragility of news organizations that were skating at the precipice of financial disaster even before this year.” Listen to NPR’s Pandemic Threatens Local Papers Even As Readers Devour Their Coverage:
The decision made last summer by Kroger, Inc., to remove all free publication racks in their stores nationwide, had already cut off over a quarter of our local distribution points. Looking back, that action now carries a disturbing sense of foreboding, and a striking blindness to the communities the stores serve.
The logistics alone do not tell the whole story. Questions of safety in spreading or contracting the virus by touching handled surfaces has emerged as yet another concern.
“We, as papers, have essentially always operated on the edge, so this is not an unfamiliar place for us,” says (Memphian) Molly Willmott, interim manager and former president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN). “That’s how we started, that’s how we’ve done business up to this point, and that’s how we’ll do business going forward. But each of our papers provides an essential voice in the communities that they serve.”~aan.org, Alt-Weeklies in the Time of Corona
It makes perfect sense that so many medium-sized and smaller news outlets across the country are putting more attention on their digital platforms. (Heck, we’ve done it here at StoryBoard too, although we happened to have that in the works anyway, virus or no virus) It makes sense too that the already-digital-heavy and digital-only outlets are now seeing increased numbers in viewing traffic and online subscriptions. Our local Daily Memphian reported this week a jump in 600 more subscribers during the month of March and a 74% jump in online traffic.
In the print arena, we at StoryBoard have been struggling with the decision to put into print our next issue, which we and our readers have been looking forward to for months while we have repositioned ourselves in the nonprofit sector. We have kept in close touch with our colleagues over at the Flyer (we piggy back onto their distribution channels and warehousing, at cost) to help us determine whether or not to go to print.
With each new restriction and stay-at-home order, will print even be viable as we ride out the coming surge in the virus spread? (the free print publications like The Best Times, Memphis Parent and the Memphis Flyer distributed their recent editions to the few news racks still out, such as those at the eight Superlo Foods stores in the region)
Or, will the next day’s coronavirus alerts and new restrictions dictate new terms for all of us in the print world? Just yesterday, April 3rd, Shelby County Health Department health officer Dr. Bruce Randolph issued a warning that 20,000 could die in Shelby County if stricter stay-at-home orders are not rigorously followed.
But the threat to our in-print publications is much more than a disruption in the pleasure of picking up the latest Flyer or StoryBoard and reading the paper with our morning coffee. It threatens to further cut off a large portion of our population from the primary mission of print journalism itself, to inform the general public. And those without access to digital will suffer most.
In 2010, in the neighborhoods of South Memphis within zip codes 38106 and 38126, just 17% of households had internet access.
Disinvested Neighborhoods = Food/ Health/ Transportation Deserts = Information Deserts
The threats to print news and information is creating a deadly divide between the haves and have nots, the informed and the misinformed.
In the plainest of terms, less than half our city has regular, reliable internet access. Sure, just about everyone has a phone – but access to the internet is a different story, as we will discuss here. And for the literally tens of thousands of Memphians who do not have the digital access so many of us enjoy, to now be cut off from print news and information – witness the crowds in Tom Lee and MLK parks last weekend – is to be cut off from the information that might save them from contracting and spreading this life-threatening virus.
It almost seems impossible, when so many of us view the necessity of and monthly costs of home internet as another expense right up there with a mortgage, homeowners insurance and MLGW, that so many function without internet access. But to witness the lines on a Friday afternoon at check-cashing counters, the customer service desks at Kroger or at a bank drive-thru, is to be reminded that many live their lives internet-less.
But they have mobile phones, don’t they? Yes, most do. But you the reader, the device you are using right now, what does it cost you? And are you on an unlimited data plan? Or do you receive notifications when you’re approaching your monthly data limit? And how much data does it allow before your monthly fee is increased?
What we just described above – plus your monthly home internet connection – would pay for at least two weeks of groceries for many families in many communities. To eat or not to eat? That’s not a question.
Just how many communities are we talking about?
For raw numbers, an initiative a decade ago called Zero Gravity – one of the first efforts to bridge the digital divide in Memphis – used 2010 U.S. census data and performed a zip code by zip code study of home internet coverage. The numbers were striking, and concerning.
Ten years ago just 45% of households in the Memphis metro area had broadband internet access. This was an overall figure. Zip code by zip code, the disparities in access from neighborhood to neighborhood were great.
The percentages of homes with internet access in the eastern suburbs of Germantown and Collierville were between 82 and 88%. However, in the Midtown (38104 and 38112 zip codes) neighborhoods, which include Central Gardens and Cooper-Young, Evergreen and Binghampton, the number of households with internet access was only 54%.
In Frayser (38127), only 37% of households had internet access. In Uptown and the Pinch (38105), just 30%. And in the neighborhoods of South Memphis, within zip codes 38106 and 38126, just 17% of those households had internet access.
Granted, these were 2010 figures. And by 2018, according to the worst-connected cities list of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the numbers had shown a marked increase. Overall, the percentages of households with broadband internet increased to about 70%. However, the percentages in the lower income communities such as those in the 38106 and 38126 zip codes, hover around 30%.
And this is not to imply that broadband overage is not widely available in these areas; quite the contrary, according to geo-ISP site for Memphis, 100% of the metro area is fiberoptic, internet-ready.
The problem? Poverty. Simple affordability. Adding another layer to the meaning of the term “disinvested,” these low-digital access zip codes also suffer from poor health care and reliable transportation.
These are also the communities, well-documented by numerous recent studies, where life expectancy is significantly less than those in middle- or higher-income communities. “These poorer, browner, neighborhoods frequently suffer disinvestment in local business, weak schools, spatial mismatch between jobs and housing, violence, and proximity to environmental risk factors,” said a 2019 report from City Lab. These are the neighborhoods that have suffered from generations of segregationist practices and “red-lining,” that are already in the middle of food deserts with inadequate access to healthy food choices, or no choices at all. (See High Ground News’ excellent 2019 reporting here)
Last week, for her High Ground News story on how the coronavirus is cutting off food access in these already-depressed neighborhoods, Ashley Davis wrote “The loss of sit-down restaurants is devastating not just for workers and business owners but residents too. These are the businesses, along with corner stories, that keep food deserts from being truly barren.”
“Barren” can now be applied to information, as these same businesses are typically pick-up spots for the African-American-focused daily print newspaper the Tri-State Defender.
Disinvestment = Distrust
… another factor in the distribution of information in neighborhoods of poverty: that of distrust.
With poverty being such a determining factor in poorer health and lesser life expectancy, how far behind the equation is poor access to accurate and contextual information? How many of you reading this asked Why when daily alerts advised the public to practice social distancing, to stay six feet apart, to wear protective masks (or not), to frequently was your hands, etc. etc.? Or, did you just follow orders?
This presents another factor in the distribution of information in neighborhoods of poverty: that of distrust. In this day and age, Who delivers the news is as important as the news itself. (This applies to any community, regardless of wealth.) Do we trust Facebook’s newsfeeds or the New York Times? CNN or Fox News? Our neighbors or our neighborhood doctor?
In communities of poverty, the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) referred to this as The Trust Divide, where diminished wealth equates to a diminished sense of self esteem and that of being judged. “There seems to be a connection between this fear of judgment and distrust of authority,” wrote Amber Lapp for the IFS.
In a pandemic, disinvestment and distrust can be deadly, especially in communities of color. Yesterday, April 3rd, ProPublica said the following:
As public health officials watched cases rise in March, too many in the community shrugged off warnings. Rumors and conspiracy theories proliferated on social media, pushing the bogus idea that black people are somehow immune to the disease. And much of the initial focus was on international travel, so those who knew no one returning from Asia or Europe were quick to dismiss the risk.
Then, when the shelter-in-place order came, there was a natural pushback among those who recalled other painful government restrictions — including segregation and mass incarceration — on where black people could walk and gather.
As the disease spread at a higher rate in the black community, it made an even deeper cut. Environmental, economic and political factors have compounded for generations, putting black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave lungs weak and immune systems vulnerable: asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
Three weeks ago, before the safer at home orders were put in place, MLK50 Memphis reminded us that workers in these communities also face some of the greatest risks. Those “without paid-leave benefits have to choose between going to work sick or losing wages,” the article said, in Low-Income Communities Are Most at Risk from Coronavirus Outbreak.
“To be or not to be” was a basic question of to live or to die.
To Print or Not to Print
With so much currently at stake and the economic and accessibility shutdowns due to the coronavirus, small publications like our StoryBoard Memphis face challenging decisions ahead with regard to print. Certainly, with so many unknowns, going all-digital for time being would seem to be smartest bet. And so far, we have not considered a pay-wall, another hot topic of late as digital publications across the country partially remove theirs to provide free access to virus-related content.
Going forward, post-pandemic, a revised revenue stream that includes a paywall again puts our publication and those like ours at odds with our mission of being a community resource, particularly when a large part of that community cannot afford it. “In a world of almost limitless information, the best would be available only to the more affluent,” said Alan Rusbridger for his 2018 book “Breaking News.” “The rest of America would make do with an ocean of free stuff; some true, some fake.”
Mr. Rusbridger’s argument is yet another reason we at StoryBoard have equated disinvested to misinformed, or as I like to say, dis-informed.
The bad equation above presents an argument for another kind of revenue stream, not reliant on traditional advertising. Across the country, not-for-profit newsrooms have sprung up over the last few years, including the Daily Memphian right here in Memphis. Nonprofit publications can still solicit traditional advertising, in addition to seeking donations, grants, and traditional subscribers, which is similar to the model we at StoryBoard have put in action in effort to maintain a place in Memphis’ information ecosystem.
And then there’s this:
Last year, (former editor-in-chief of Huffington Post) Lydia Polgreen published an op-ed in the Guardian warning of the threat posed by “the collapse of the information ecosystem.” In her piece, she urges advertisers to consider the ways in which they contribute to its destruction; they might, she suggests, buy ads “on platforms that slow rather than increase the pace of information ecosystem collapse.” A company, therefore, might decide that a portion of its marketing budget should be reserved specifically for high-quality news sites, as opposed to digital-advertising networks managed by Google or Facebook. “The withdrawal of advertising dollars would be the single most powerful way to change the practices of companies that contribute most powerfully to the information ecosystem crisis,” she writes.~from the March 29 New Yorker piece, The Fate of the News in the Age of the Coronavirus
Of course, her proposal was suggested pre-pandemic. What, then, of an information ecosystem without advertising dollars?
Innovation, Diversity & Collaboration Are the Keys
In the same March 29 New Yorker piece, writer Michael Luo had this to say in one his closing arguments:
In his new book, “Democracy Without Journalism?,” Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, argues that the commercial model that sustained newspapers for a hundred and fifty years is beyond repair. “Without a viable news media system, democracy is reduced to an unattainable ideal,” he writes. Pickard makes the case for a more robust public media system—an American version of the BBC—that could “provide a baseline for reliable information and act as a safety net when the market fails to support adequate levels of news production.”
A detailed study by PEN America called “Losing The News,” finished and published in the fall of 2019, outlined recommendations for news publications of all sorts. This study took a similar argument to a call to action: “Central among (our) recommendations is the call for a Congressional Commission on Public Support for Local News, to systematically examine the state of public funding for local journalism.”
In the face of a pandemic, the PEN America study now amounts to a survival guide. “If we don’t act soon,” the study says, “the damage will only deepen—harming our civic life, our ability to hold the powerful to account, and our democracy.”
It recommends that publications pursue and build diverse sources of revenue, collaborate and partner with local papers and media, invest in reporting in underserved communities, and finally, “communicate to the public the value of local journalism, the challenges it faces, and the importance of supporting it.”
Diverse revenues. Partnerships with local media. A focus in underserved communities. And communication with the public.
“For a paper to lose its print edition is to become ghostlike, immaterial.” ~Luc Sante
As each and every last one of us battle the coronavirus pandemic, the value of local news and information is greater than ever. Just as “To be or not to be” was a basic question of to live or die, to print or not to print – or to go all-digital or not, to increase broadband access or not – becomes a basic contemplation of the survival of the news.
Last year, photographer Christopher Payne of the New York Times took readers into the Times’ printing plant and pressroom at College Point, Queens. The photo essay was called “The Daily Miracle,” and its photos and text, with a forward by the ever-evocative Luc Sante, gave readers a behind-the-curtain look at the making of a newspaper.
Mr. Payne’s photo essay and Mr. Sante’s words were published one year ago this past weekend. What they and the rest of us did not know, could not know, was that the already-struggling industry would face a foe that would threaten to kill it, in the form of a microscopic germ with red crown points.
The essay and photos seem to drip with wet ink, the sights and smells of the printing press seem to leap off the page. And the press itself is a miracle too, of machinery. Built by human hands, to be read by human hands.
As Americans, as humans, we have always shown a knack for innovation. It’s won world wars. It’s solved other pandemics. We can solve this too. We will press on. <>
Mark Fleischer is founder and publisher of StoryBoard Memphis, a champion of Memphis’ assets, a builder of community connections.