Updated: Jul 14, 2022
As fake news threatens democracies around the world, Margaret Sullivan’s landmark book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, shows how, at the local level, it's not fake news causing a crisis, it's the dwindling supply of real news.
By Bryan Bakker
BACKGROUND: LOCAL NEWS WOES
Sullivan's book outlines this crisis in multiple ways. In 2019 a politician named Chris Collins got elected in his district of Western New York State, after being indicted on charges of insider trading. A huge swath of the district didn't know. He later resigned and went to prison. She points to a 2018 Hutchins Center working paper titled "Financing Dies in Darkness?" where it's shown how, after a local newspaper went out of business, government borrowing increased from 5 to 11 basis points. Then, a PEW study found that the better informed people are locally, the more likely they are to volunteer, get active politically, keep democracy on the rails.
Good journalism means good government.
Whether it's caused by hedge fund takeovers prioritizing profits or Google/Facebook drawing away ad revenue, this local news crisis is everywhere. In our opinion, it's best described in this quote by Jack Shafer, senior media writer at Politico.
"The local news movement won’t make much progress until its proponents realize that its primary obstacle is a demand-side one, not a supply-side one. It’s not that nobody wants to read local news; it’s just that not enough people do to make it a viable business.
Jack Shafer, senior media writer at Politico
And there's the rub. In a deeply competitive market for people's attention, folks just aren't hooked by the old ways of delivering local news.
THE SEARCH FOR A NEW WAY
Democracy started at the grassroots level and, with the way things are going, it might die there too. To fill what some now call "news deserts" there has been a valiant effort to use nonprofits. Sullivan offers an example. Alice Dreger, a former professor at Michigan State University, created the East Lansing Info. With more than 100 community volunteers they discovered:
An undisclosed pension debt of $200 million.
Their waste-water treatment plant mishandled a mercury spill.
A retaining wall, built at public expense, had been benefiting the city attorney’s personal property.
The city was selling off a piece of municipal property on eBay.
These are important results that show in stark terms how "when the cats are away the mice will play". But relying on nonprofits to keep democracy healthy is haphazard at best. What about poor districts? What about regions were economic desperation limits the pool of volunteers? What about conflicts of interest between donors and what's being covered?
Clearly, what's needed is a free market approach that can generate income through increased interest while accomplishing the same things.
INTRODUCING THE NEWSLOAD
As both an art form and a mode of persuasive discourse, the use of political humor dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. For centuries politicians, citizens, and elites have marveled at and even feared its powerful—and magical—influence on public opinion.
Excerpt from Theories and Effects of Political Humor by Dannagal G. Young,
Modern audiences have modern tastes. News outlets have hard won reputations. What if there was a business model that could bridge this divide and be profitable too?
Well there is and it has been with us, all along.
It has worked for a long time on the macro level.
We believe it'll explode on the micro level, given structure, and half a chance.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
Satire short circuits cynicism allowing people to understand the other side. Where else in civic life can those on opposite sides of a political divide react, in the same way, to the same sentence?
Bryan Bakker, Founder of the Newsload
As we have argued in another blog, what's funny points toward to the political center. We call this the comedy compass. Subscribers who become Newsload Editors and start Newsload outlets in their communities will only be successful if they're funny to the majority of people. This means very little policing over content is needed because bad comedy (A.K.A. extremist comedy) will die quickly on the vine.
Outside of mandating high journalistic standards around truth and sourcing, Newsload Editors will have free reign to produce comedic content that fits their community's needs.
The Newsload is a super inexpensive franchise to join and maintain with few strings attached. As the Newsload brand grows so too will the fortunes and popularity of every Newsload outlet.
A Newsload outlet can be an individual with a cell phone or a team, depending on approach and finances. A small team might consist of a photojournalist, a talented improv comedian and a director/editor.
Stories can be put together very similarly to that of a standard TV news story and within the same time frame. The only addition would be in pre-planning to brainstorm out loose gags that can accompany comedy improvised on location.
With this open approach and the incredible talent we know exists everywhere, the Newsload will inspire a waterfall of spectacular laughs, help to revitalize local news and democratic accountability and bring much needed eyeballs back to newsrooms and the journalists who rely on them. I can't wait to see what people come up with.