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“Make America think again:” Bring the beats back

April 29, 2021

As for transforming the way consumers receive information, Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff’s book “United States of Distraction” encourages broadening news media framing, investing in local and investigative journalism, implementing educational news media in schools, and protecting whistleblowers.

Newstown, a documentary regarding the closing of the Youngstown Vindicator, suggests that the root of democracy is built upon a disappearing voice: the local newspaper. Local papers such as the Naperville Sun, Aurora Beacon-News, and the Daily Herald are some of the many publications that are facing increased financial burden. As newspapers go online, the local paper’s main source of revenue, advertisements, goes down. As a result, local newspapers are increasingly funded by private equity and hedge funds, which has resulted in local newspapers sold, traded, and closed as financial assets, rather than as an asset to the local community.

One of a firm’s  ways to make money is facilitating a leveraged buyout. The firm buys a company like a newspaper by taking out a loan. The debt is not on the firm’s shoulders; it is on the newspaper publications. The newspaper is often stretched to maximize as much profit and repay the loan through budget cuts and layoffs. Eventually, if the newspaper goes bankrupt, the private equity firms are not responsible for it. Newspapers are also targets for vulture funds to sweep in and “bleed newspapers dry.” These vulture funds include Fortress Investment Group and Alden Global Capital. They are also notable for employee layoffs. It is not a newfound pattern, and the consequences are not new either. 

“I know more local newspapers are going under, and that fate is going to continue because people want the information for free,” Naperville Sun Reporter Suzanne Baker said. “I can’t tell you how many times people will say, ‘Why are they making me pay for this? I shouldn’t have to pay for it.’ Well, yeah, you do. Go into a grocery store or restaurant and say, ‘Well, I want this, and I shouldn’t have to pay for it.’ News is gathered and it costs money for someone to gather that news and present it to you.”

Baker is one of many local reporters in the Naperville and Aurora area that are struggling to find the resources and security needed for their jobs, such as an office to work in. In addition, Baker is one of the few reporters that write for the suburban dailies, which means that there are not enough people to divide up the work and cover every beat of the city. 

“All you’re seeing is this barrage of national news, and you think that’s the only thing happening,” Baker said. “And I think [that] kind of contributed to some of the things that we’re seeing in society today because people only see the scary parts of what’s going on, even though it’s not anywhere near them. They’re not hearing all the good little things that their little communities are doing and the people in their community are doing, or [that] there’s no one to watch over their government.”

In addition, the absence of local journalism has enabled consumers to utilize other media technologies and publishers such as Facebook or Twitter as their prime news source. Areas without local journalists are not able to keep elected officials and institutions in check. This eventually leads to polarizing viewpoints and a dependence on journalists telling their consumers what they should think.

North Central’s O’Donnell specifically encourages revamping local news media and investigative journalism. One way to do that is to encourage young people to get involved and understand the journalistic process.  

“…When you graduate from college, you [should] get two years of your loans forgiven if you go into your local community and work at the newspaper,” O’Donnell said. “Get people who do that work, who are young and earnest, and need the experience.”

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