Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Rural Blog's Top 10 stories for 2021 illustrate the rural journalism institute's history, mission and forms of service

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

When our friends at The Daily Yonder listed their Top 10 stories of 2021, it made us wonder what the top stories of the year were on The Rural Blog, as measured by individual page views.

Al Smith
Sadly, three of of our top 10 dealt with death: a news story and an opinion piece about the passing of Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, and a story on the death of former Louisville Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe, who was born in Eastern Kentucky, was a reporter there, and made sure that the C-J paid attention to the rural region even as most newspapers forsook rural coverage. Al and David were keys to whatever success I have had, and I miss them every day. But I'm glad the stories about them got attention.

As The Rural Blog says on its right rail, it's about facts, not opinion, but you may read an opinion here occasionally. We've had a little more opinion in the last few years, because of the issues facing our democracy and journalism (and especially lately, rural journalism). Soon after the Jan. 6 insurrection, I wrote that rural newspapers should "speak the truth, stand up for it and have respectful dialogue" with readers who believed then-President Trump's lie that the election was stolen from him.

When The Associated Press finished its meticulous investigation of election-fraud claims and published a story saying that there was far too little fraud to make a difference in the election, I asked AP to make the story available to weekly newspapers that don't subscribe to the wire service. AP agreed, and our story about that was one of the most-read on The Rural Blog in 2021. Thanks again to Adam Yeomans and his superiors at AP!

The most-read post on the blog this year was a piece I wrote about Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl ad for Jeep, which drew fire from The Washington Post's pop-music critic, who said it felt "insulting and wrong" in the wake of the insurrection to suggest that "we should all swiftly and metaphorically travel to the nucleus of white, rural America to make up and move along." I wrote that it was the columnist who was insulting and wrong, and quoted other, better takes and provided background.

The most-read news story on the blog was about the departure of a prominent local editor in Paxton Media Group after it bought her newspaper and the others in Landmark Community Newspapers in one of the biggest community news media transactions of the year. The story came from the Yonder, which quoted the unhappy editor at length but had nothing from Paxton. We sought comment from the company and added it; no other such examples have surfaced.

Another widely read story was about this year's Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, which went to the Thompson-High family of Whiteville, N.C., which published The News Reporter for more than 80 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. It's great to see high readership for a story about exemplars of rural journalism.

The 10th most-read story is also gratifying. It alerted readers to a re-airing of the Institute's 2020 documentary, still available online, "about a soldier from one of the most isolated places in America who repeatedly put his life on the line for his country – but quietly returned to his very rural life and wasn’t fully honored for his heroism until 73 years later." His name was G. Murl Conner.

This didn't start out to be an article about the Institute and what we do, but that's what the page-view statistics tell us. And we wouldn't be doing right by ourselves if we didn't take this opportunity to ask for tax-deductible contributions to support our work. You can do that online, by going here. Thanks!

Rural areas are losing grocery stores, while gaining dollar stores and regional supercenters, USDA research shows

Economic Research Service graph shows census of food retailers in rural counties.

Rural places lost single-location grocery stores but gained dollar stores and regional "supercenters" from 1998 to 2015, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The trend continues as dollar stores proliferate, especially during the pandemic.

"Most counties without access to a grocery store or a food retailer are rural nonmetro and urban nonmetro," says the report by Alexander Stevens, Clare Cho, Metin Çakır, Xiangwen Kong, and Michael Boland of ERS. "The number of grocery stores has been declining in these counties, particularly after the Great Recession. As a result, the share of grocery store sales in total food sales has been declining during this time, replaced primarily by convenience stores. These trends suggest that access to grocery stores has been declining over the last 25 years."  

Retail chains selling food have gained market share. "The number of single location grocery stores has been declining particularly after 2009, which was also the main source of the large decline in the total number of grocery stores," ERS reports.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Republicans use mask disputes and 'critical race theory' to push for partisan elections of local boards of education

A crowd attends a board meeting on mask mandates in the Kalamazoo 
County Schools in Michigan. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher, Getty Images)
Republicans are pressing local and state officials to make historically nonpolitical school-board races partisan "in an attempt to gain more statewide control and swing them to victory in the 2022 midterms," Andrew Atterbury and Juan Perez Jr. report for Politico.

Tennessee recently allowed school-board candidates to list their party on the ballot, and Arizona and Missouri legislators may do likewise. Similar legislation in Florida "would pave the way for partisan school board races statewide, potentially creating new primary elections that could further inflame the debate about how to teach kids," Politico reports. "The issue is about to spread to other states."

The American Enterprise Institute says conservatives should “strongly consider” letting partisan affiliations to appear on school-board ballots, "as part of broader efforts to boost voter turnout for the contests," Politico reports. A group of conservatives, including representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute and Kenneth Marcus, former Education Department civil-rights chief, say school-board elections should be held on the same schedule as partisan elections "as part of sweeping efforts to 'end critical race theory in schools'," an unproven presumption.

"In Florida, school boards are among the last elected officials who blocked policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis," Politico notes. "If Republicans succeed in pushing the state to strip school-board elections of their nonpartisan status and gain more representation on school boards, they could break the last holdouts who regularly defy the governor," a possible presidential candidate absent Donald Trump.

“We’re out there trying to elect good conservatives that will follow essentially the governor’s mission as it relates to education,” said Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), who leads both the Senate Education Committee and the state Republican Party.

Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Politico, “I do think party labels would produce more informed voters. But, at the same time, it would likely accelerate emerging trend of nationalization of local education politics.”

Politicization of school-board races doesn't necessarily mean changes to ballots. The Texas Republican Party recently "formed a new Local Government Committee to work with county parties on backing candidates in nonpartisan local elections, where issues like mask mandates and the teaching of what some conservatives call critical race theory have become flashpoints," the Texas Tribune reports. "The state Democratic Party has been supporting local nonpartisan candidates through a program, Project LIFT, that started in 2015. The program, which stands for Local Investment in the Future of Texas, recruits, trains and provides resources to people running for municipal offices and school board."

Omicron variant makes better masks necessary, experts say

Chart from; click on it to elnarge.
"With another coronavirus variant racing across the U.S., once again health authorities are urging people to mask up indoors. Yes, you’ve heard it all before," Maria Godoy reports for NPR. "But given how contagious Omicron is, experts say, it’s seriously time to upgrade to an N95 or similar high-filtration respirator when you’re in public indoor spaces.

“Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron,” Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses transmit in the air, told NPR.

Omicron "spreads at least three times faster than Delta," Godoy notes. "One person is infecting at least three others at a time on average, based on data from other countries."

Robert Wachter, chair of the medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Godoy, “The kind of encounter that you could have had with prior versions of the virus that would have left you uninfected, there’s now a good chance you will get infected from it.”

Early research at the University of Hong Kong shows "Omicron multiplies 70 times faster inside human respiratory tract tissue than the delta variant does," NPR reports. "That study also found that Omicron reaches higher levels in respiratory tract tissue 48 hours after infection, compared with Delta."

Marr said, “That would suggest to me that maybe it reaches higher levels and then we spew out more [virus particles] if we’re infected,” Also, Omicron may be so contagious that it takes fewer viral particles to create an infection.

Also, "Virus particles from an infectious person can linger in the air indoors for minutes or even hours after they leave a room in some situations, says Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University," Godoy reports.  Karan told her, “I think that people need to realize that transmission here can happen even when you’re not near somebody.”

Godoy says, "Given all this, you want a mask that means business when it comes to blocking viral particles. Unlike cloth masks, N95, KN95 and KF94 respirators are all made out of material with an electrostatic charge." That “pulls these particles in as they’re floating around and prevents you from inhaling those particles,” Karan told her. “And that really is key.”

Surgical masks also have an electrostatic charge, but they tend to fit loosely, "A snug fit — with no gaps around nose, cheeks or chin — 'really makes a big difference,' says Marr, who has studied mask efficacy," Godoy reports.

"KN95s tend to be a bit more comfortable than N95s, but counterfeits continue to be a problem. For safer shopping, check out a site like Project N95, a nonprofit that helps consumers find legitimate personal protective equipment. Or check the CDC’s site for advice on how to spot a counterfeit and a list of trusted sources for surgical N95s. For maximum protection, make sure your N95 fits snugly as well, creating a seal around your mouth and nose. The CDC explains what makes a good fit and how to test that yours is sealing well."

As coronavirus cases set new daily records, rural hospitals with staff shortages brace for a wave of Covid-19 cases

A nurse cares for a Covid-19 patient in Apple Valley, Calif. (Photo by Ariana Drehsler, AFP/Getty, via Marketplace)

As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing new cases to reach record levels in the United States, hospitals are bracing for another wave of Covid-19 patients, and rural hospitals "are running out of backup plans," Savannah Maher reports for Marketplace, a syndicated public-radio program.

The pandemic has already "caused an exodus of doctors and nurses" and "the more transmissible omicron variant is sending some of the remaining workers home," Maher reports. "With the national shortage of health care workers, small, rural hospitals are having a hard time hiring."

“Just because of their locations, their financial situations are often more precarious,” Joanne Spetz of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco, told Maher. They are made more so by rural communities’ low vaccination rates: “You’re looking at potentially a large number of people coming into the small hospital and possibly having staff out sick.”

Maher has some state-by-state examples: "In New Mexico, more than half of hospitals face critical staffing shortages." In Vermont, “Our workforce is shrinking and stressed, you know, at a time when we need it to be growing and resilient,” said Jeff Tieman of the Vermont Association of Hospitals.

Teenagers are the entire staff of a rural New York volunteer ambulance service that had been depleted by the pandemic

From left, teenagers Nicklas Brazie, Sophia DeVito, Dalton Hardison and Graydon Brunet stand at the rear of their ambulance in Sackets Harbor, N.Y. (Photo by Kara Dry, Watertown Daily Times)

Volunteer fire departments and ambulance services in rural areas have been running short of volunteers for many years, and the problem has worsened in the pandemic. In one small town in northern New York, teenage volunteers have become essential to the local ambulance service.

In Sackets Harbor, a town of 1,400 near Watertown at the east end of Lake Ontario, "A lot of older volunteers stepped away because of Covid-19 health concerns," NPR reports, introducing a story from Amy Feiereisel of North Country Public Radio.

Every member of the eight-person ambulance crew is under 21, Feiereisel reports: "Twenty-year-old Grayden Brunet is the EMS captain. He manages the budget and runs the ship." When the pandemic hit, "Brunet says a lot of the older EMTs stopped responding to calls altogether."

"We came in one day and realized we were the only ones coming in," Brunet told Feiereisel, who reports, "Three teenage boys were shouldering an almost unfathomable burden, responding to heart attacks and car accidents and suicides, transporting Covid-19 patients to the nearest city hospital. In New York, like many states, 17-year-olds can become certified EMTs."

Then, "A whole new batch of teenagers applied to join the crew, starting with Sophia DeVito. She was 16. Her entire family had gotten Covid-19. After that, she wanted to help people," Feiereisel reports. DeVito told her, "It's someone's mother. It's someone's father. It's a grandmother. It's a parent. It's a child. These are actual people's lives."

As for the EMTs' education, "Their school, Sackets Harbor Central, allows the 17-year-old members to leave class to go on calls," Feiereisel reports. "If they don't, the ambulance might not run."

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Mite that devastates beehives may have been enabled by beekeepers' breeding practices; if so, a fix will take time

A bee infested with varroa destructor mites (
Beekeepers hate Varroa destructor, the aptly named mite that has infected nearly every beehive in the United States and devastated many of them. But new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests that apiarists' own beekeeping practices have unwittingly cleared a path for the mites.

The research focused on propolis, "a sticky material that bees make from a mixture of wax and resins gathered from a wide variety of plants," The Economist reports. "They use it to coat the inner walls of their hives, to plug holes in the hive wall that might otherwise admit predators, and to encase the bodies of those intruders which do manage to breach that wall and have subsequently been stung to death."

Alberto Satta of Sassari University in Italy discovered that hives invaded by Varroa send out more foraging bees to gather plant resins used to make propolis, which contains toxic phenols. He and Francesco Nazzi of Udine University, also in Italy, found that propolis helps protect against mite infestations. They wondered why bees don't use more of it in brood cells, which the mites invade.

"A plausible answer is that the ability to do so has been bred out of them," says The Economist. "Until the revelation of its antimicrobial properties, beekeepers saw propolis as nothing but a nuisance. . . . When hives with removable frames, for the easier collection of honey, were introduced in the mid-19th century, bees retaliated . . . by pasting propolis over those frames, making them hard to extract. To counter this behavior, generations of beekeepers have favored colonies that produced less of the stuff. As a result, modern bees are fairly economical with its manufacture and deployment. Reversing the consequences of such selective breeding will not be easy."

That could involve hybridizing domesticated bees with wild strains of the species, or with other species of bees "that have not lost the knack of making propolis," the Economist speculates. "For that to work, though, would require a concerted effort spread over many places. A more immediate response might be to make it easier for bees to gather the phenol-rich resins which do the mite-killing—perhaps by growing relevant plants near hives. Alternatively, a synthetic version of propolis, introduced into hives by human hand, might then be deployed by the workers in mite-unfriendly ways. Regardless of the exact path out of the mess, though, the sad tale of the honey bee, the propolis and the Varroa mite looks like an object lesson in the law of unintended consequences."

Monday, December 27, 2021

Builders have thwarted code changes that would provide more shelter in tornadoes

Amid more than 100 newsroom closures in pandemic, more than 50 have started, and some are serving rural areas

Screenshot of the Border Belt Independent, which serves rural southeastern North Carolina

More than 100 U.S. newsrooms have closed during the pandemic, but more than 50 have started, and some of them serve rural areas.

"As they did before the pandemic, the majority of digital startups sprang up around major metro areas, said Penny Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism," Kristen Hare reports for The Poynter Institute. "That happens thanks to better access to for-profit and philanthropic funding. But Abernathy has been excited to see newsrooms launching in rural areas, including The Border Belt Independent in North Carolina."

The Independent, created by 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award winner Les High, covers four counties in southeastern North Carolina "with a focus on poverty, health, mental health, adverse childhood experiences, race, education, and the economy," it says.

Hare's list of 2021 newsroom startups also include these that serve rural areas: The Arkadelphian in southwest Arkansas; the Omaha-based Flatwater Free Press, which aims to cover all of Nebraska; 
the Harpswell Anchor in Maine; the Highway 58 Herald in Oregon; the Mississippi Free Press; Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia; the New Hampshire Bulletin; the Northern New Mexico Independent; the Philomath News in Oregon; and the Shasta Scout in Redding, Calif.

Hare also listed new newsletters, including The Border Chronicle in Tucson; the Coastal Plains Environmental Advocate in North Carolina (including part of the Border Belt's territory), and Down in the County in Pamlico County, North Carolina (part of the Coastal Plains); the Kerr County Lead in Texas; The Goldenrod, which says it's "a news and culture publication covering the vibrant small towns, hamlets and communities of Central and Eastern Kentucky;" and The E'ville Good, which says it's for northeast Iowa and southwest Minnesota and looks like it's based in Estherville.

All this activity encourages Abernathy, who started tracking newspaper closures and mergers while at the University of North Carolina. “I think there was an acknowledgement among news consumers that local news is important,” she told Hare. “The pandemic brought that home in ways nothing else had.” And among her students, “Now there’s a real understanding of how important local news is to the quality of our everyday lives, and that gives me tremendous hope for the long term.”

Major towns in Arkansas' part of the Mississippi Delta fight to reverse decline, demonstrated by loss of population

Partial map of Arkansas shows the Mississippi Delta in brown.
The Mississippi Delta is a place of poverty, poor health and other problems, often given short shrift by news media that serve the region. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette took a look Monday at the state's part of the Delta, through two large towns, Blytheville and Pine Bluff, after a broader story Sunday.

"Poverty, population loss, abandonment and crime are issues that affect the rural parts of the Delta, but some urban parts of the region have also suffered from those things," Stephen Simpson reports. "At its peak, Blytheville’s population was nearly 25,000 in the 1970 census, but by 2020, the number of people had dropped to close to 13,000. . . . From the 1970 to 1990 censuses, Pine Bluff had a population of about 57,000, but as of the 2020 census, the population has declined to a little more than 41,000."

Blytheville has lost several major employers in the last 30 years, most notably the Air Force base that closed in 1992. "Local government officials and businesses turned their sights into making Mississippi County the steel capital of the state," Simpson reports, quoting Cliff Chitwood, Mississippi County’s economic development director: “We played our part in bringing 4,000 jobs to Mississippi County, but 4,000 is not 8,000.” And not all those folks have moved to the county.

"Steel-mill jobs pay so well that [they] attract people from far away," Simpson reports, citing Chitwood: “The job is a four-days-on and four-days-off type of business, so people are coming here from Little Rock and Fayetteville, staying in their fancy trailers while working here and then going back . . . It wasn’t because people didn’t like it here. It wasn’t because we didn’t have the amenities.”

In Pine Bluff, which is near Little Rock and overlooks the Delta, drugs, crime and poor health have contributed to decline. Now health officials are worried that depression is a major health risk in the area. “You need a healthy economy to have healthy people and you need healthy people to have a healthy economy,” Dr. Brookshield Laurent, the executive director for the Delta Population Health Institute, told Simpson. “If you don’t have opportunities for jobs in the workforce then people will leave and there will be a disinvestment in the communities.”

J.D. Crowe dead at 84; 'none finer on the five-string banjo'

J.D. Crowe, right, accepted an honorary degree from University of Kentucky
President Eli Capilouto in 2012. Faculty Trustee Robert Grossman is at left.
J.D. Crowe, a maestro of the banjo and bluegrass music, died Saturday at 84.

"His place in the pantheon of banjo players is certain," John Lawless writes for Bluegrass Today, which says there was "none finer on the five-string banjo."

"Among those who followed the example of Earl Scruggs, Crowe was perhaps the first to rise as a disciple of the new style who not only made it his own, but did so with a precision and power that set him apart from the herd," Lawless writes. "No one ever played bluegrass banjo more passionately, more inventively, or more interestingly than he did. Two generations of pickers have studied his playing, and even those who are taking the three-finger style in new directions, like Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Noam Pikelny, will readily acknowledge Crowe as a major influence and an unmistakable stylist in his own right. If Earl Scruggs was a machine, J.D. Crowe was a carnival ride. His playing was fun, lighthearted, and even frivolous at times, all coming from his own distinct personality."

After playing with Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys, Crowe formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys, which had on mandolin and vocals Doyle Lawson, another member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. They became J.D. Crowe and The New South, and in 1975 their album The New South "changed the sound of the music forever," Lawless writes, noting that the record was better known by its number, Rounder 0044. "With Tony Rice on guitar and lead vocal, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and tenor vocal, Crowe on banjo and baritone vocal, Bobby Slone on bass, and Jerry Douglas on reso-guitar, 0044 announced to the world that a new generation of bluegrass music had arrived, with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners sound. . . . The combination of Rice’s Clarence White-inspired rhythm guitar with Crowe’s driving and dynamic banjo defined a novel sound that remains with us today." 

“That particular record from 1975 was what really gave me a passion for wanting to play music,” Allison Krauss says in "A Kentucky Treasure: The J.D. Crowe Story," the 2008 documentary by Russ Farmer. Krauss, Crowe and Rice were later in the Rounder All-Stars Bluegrass Band.

Lawless says Crowe rivaled bluegrass founder Bill Monroe "with the number of stellar artists he brought to prominence as members of The New South. Not long after the departure of Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs, Crowe brought in Keith Whitley on guitar, and Gene Johnson on mandolin, both of whom saw huge success in country music in a few years’ time. Other noted grassers who worked for J.D. would include Don Rigsby, Phil Leadbetter, Rickey Wasson, Richard Bennett, and Ron Stewart." Crowe's aptly named "Fireball" won the 1983 Grammy for country instrumental.

Crowe's funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Jessamine Christian Church in Nicholasville, Ky., near his native Lexington, with visitation there from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

A year-end message about saving our country’s local free press system, 'never intended to be a Wall Street bauble'

Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, whose family also owns smaller community newspapers, published this letter to readers on Dec. 26. This is an edited version; the original is here. 

Frank Blethen Jr.
In my Seattle Times 125th anniversary letter in August, I shared that there would be three parts to my message this year: August focused on the national opportunity to save our local free press system and our democracy; September focused on The Seattle Times’ role as our community’s storyteller and town square.

Today, I share an update on the remarkable progress of the “Save the Local Free Press” movement. This progress is fragile, but promises to help stabilize the system, begin to grow back the 40,000 lost local journalism jobs and begin freeing “ghost” newspapers from their absentee overlords, returning them to local control and vitality.

An additional message will soon share insights into the Blethen family’s 125-year stewardship of The Seattle Times, as well as our 30-year stewardship of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and 50-year stewardship of the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Local Free Press Stewardship

It has taken several years to remind the public and Congress that our founding fathers created the local free-press system as the essential platform for our democratic experiment. The founders understood that the rich and powerful appreciated the value of information and would always seek to control it, and that a democracy could not develop without the ubiquitous availability of news and a literate citizenry. Their solution was brilliant:

The First Amendment to protect citizens’ free speech from the government they were creating.

The subsidy to provide ubiquitous distribution of information by creating the post office, subsidizing publishers’ distribution costs and making some of them postmasters.

Literacy, through a heavy investment in common schools and public education.

The free press is the only business mentioned in and protected by our Constitution. It was never intended to be a Wall Street bauble milked for short-term gain and then cast aside. It was intended to be a national system of locally independent newspapers that served to bind the citizens of each unique community to our new self-government experiment. This localism created trust, good local self-government and a national consciousness.

In our era of mistrust and suspicion, it might surprise you that local newspapers (print and digital) are regarded as the most trusted news and information source by a majority of Americans. This is particularly ironic since so many are now ghost newspapers with decimated staffs, tiny news holes and almost no quality local news, as they are controlled by absentee short-term financial profiteers.

The fragility of our local free press system is one of the two primary reasons we are in a national crisis and have become a nation riven by the worst civil discord and deepest societal fault lines since the Civil War – a crisis driven by the disinvestment in our once-vaunted national local newspaper system.

During the last 25 years, the loss of local stewardship and responsible local journalism has steadily accelerated. Since the quickest way to increase short-term profits is to cut news staff and eliminate robust reporting, local newsrooms have been decimated. News deserts and ghost newspapers are fast becoming the norm.

To save our democracy, we must do three things with urgency:

Rebuild our local newspaper newsrooms: Add back the 44,000 local newsroom jobs lost in the last 10 years.

Replace absentee financial mercenaries: Prevent further absentee consolidation.

Rebuild local stewardships:
Pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act in the short term.
Develop a replacement for the lost United States Post Office subsidy for the long term.
Create incentives for new local stewardship where news deserts and ghost newspapers now exist.
End the Google and Facebook digital advertising monopoly.
Require Google and Facebook to pay for the newspaper content they use.

Not long ago, Washington state was a bastion of local newspaper stewardship. Today a majority of our daily newspapers are absentee-owned ghost papers. Without strong local newspaper stewardship, many of our communities are beginning to drift and lose connection. Without strong local content, our communities with news deserts and served by ghost newspapers are become feeding grounds for the fake news, misinformation and civil discord spewed by social media and Fox News.

Big Tech and social media reform

The second primary reason for the potential collapse of our democratic experiment is the monopolistic behavior of Big Tech, both their egregiously irresponsible management of social media and their illegal digital advertising monopolization of newspapers’ primary funding source for journalism.

The combination of absentee newspaper owners’ disinvestment in good local journalism and Big Tech’s advertising monopoly and social media abuses has created a national crisis for the future of our democracy. Reform of Facebook and Google are essential so newspapers can compete in a fair marketplace. Reform of social media abuses by Google and Facebook are essential to return us to being a civil and safe society.

Local Journalism Sustainability Act

The most promising first step in halting the newsroom carnage is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Like most legislation, it isn’t perfect, but if passed it could become the foundation for paving the way to restoring our fragile local newspaper system, rebuilding trust and reducing social discord. (Full disclosure: The Seattle Times has played a key role in creating awareness and helping craft the legislation.)

Next steps

Going forward and building momentum, the critical steps to restoring our once vibrant and trusted local newspaper system and saving our democracy are:
Pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
Develop a permanent subsidy to replace the lost postal subsidy our founders created.
Severely limit absentee newspaper ownership in the future.
Break up Big Tech marketplace abuse and monopolistic practices.
Hold Big Tech accountable for fake news, misinformation and irresponsible social media.
Create incentives for new local stewardships to replace the absentee short-term investors.

Journalism ecosystem

All communities have a journalism and news ecosystem that needs to be nurtured. The key to a strong ecosystem is a strong local newspaper. Academic studies have verified that a local newspaper produces more than 60% of a community’s original reporting. Local newspapers produce more local reporting than TV, radio and online outlets combined. In a strong local news ecosystem, smaller organizations amplify and sometimes expand upon original newspaper content and have specific and important market segments often based on ethnicity.

The bottom line: First and foremost, save and nurture the daily newspaper as the ecosystem foundation, but don’t forget these ecosystem niche products.

On behalf of the Blethen family and our Seattle Times family, thank you for supporting the free press. We could not succeed without you.