Hey, out there in readerland: Where do you get most of your news? TV? Local TV or cable? From radio? Sirius XM, NPR, Talk radio? Twitter and Facebook? The internet as a whole? Newspapers? Digital ones or print ones? Local or national?
No doubt about it. There is a lot of news sources out there. In fact, all the news that’s fit to print is growing.
It’s also changing. In how news is delivered and in what format it’s delivered.
Back in May, the American Spectator carried a column by William Murchison with this headline: “Extra, Extra! Newspapers found dying.” The subhead read: “Local papers continue to die, and with them, some irreplaceable links to community.”
That’s only partly fake news. Spoiler alert — we’re not going down without a fight.
The Spectator’s columnist was taking a cue from an earlier article from The Wall Street Journal, which had drearily written: “Time is running out” for local franchises unable to compete with Google and Facebook for advertising revenue.
We likely don’t need to remind you of one of last month’s shocker headlines: “Facebook won’t censor political ads.” Censor in that sense was overly kind.
We should all recall the millions of page views spurred by patently false Russian ads generated and spread with the aid of bots to meddle in our 2016 election. Facebook was paid for those. Now here we are less than year out from our 2020 elections, and Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is wrapping himself in the Constitution to tell us that he’s OK with running ads that are patently false.
Zuckerberg said: “I believe that when its not absolutely clear what to do, we should err on the side of greater expression. There are many more ads about issues than there are about elections. Do we ban ads about health care, immigration or women’s empowerment?” he said. “If you’re not going to ban those, does it really make sense to give everyone else a voice in political debates except for the candidates themselves?”
No. No. No. No. If the ad — and we’re making this up for a point — says Bernie’s Medicare for All argument is wrongheaded, that’s free speech. If the ad says Bernie paid Pew to cook the outcomes data from American hospitals and insurers to provide skewed data about their profits — and fact checkers can show it’s not true — that’s an ad that no responsible media — social or otherwise — should run.
But last month a political PAC placed a Facebook ad about the Bidens that made untrue claims about their connections to Ukraine. Biden’s campaign asked Facebook to remove the ad, but Facebook said no, and — get this — pointed to its policy against fact-checking political speech.
We take political ads — and other ads — too. But not ones we know or find to be false. We do as much fact-checking as possible, and we have turned some down. If we acted like Facebook, we’d say: Sorry! We don’t ask public utilities what’s in coal ash. We just take money from them for an ad and let them say it’s clean enough to use like flour in brownies.
That’s not ethical journalism. And neither is Facebook.
But here’s the thing: Newspapers — and increasingly other legitimate media organizations — don’t have many political ads to check anymore. It’s easier and cheaper for candidates — and others — to mislead or distort on Facebook and Twitter. And every internet user becomes complicit, intentionally or not, each time we click on the message. Even if we don’t “like” or “share” it. Somewhere in the Internet cosmos those clicks are counted and categorized and shared with the bots recording histories to shop to advertisers and page creators — good or bad.
Even we — the Times Free Press — clearly understand and seek to exploit the fact that we’re not just tens of thousands of print papers anymore. We count web page views and measure reader engagement with the stories, photos and videos we produce. That’s how we know we have far more reader reach than ever.
And this brings us back to keeping local news — and local newspapers — strong. Those clicks can be a double-edged sword.
If you go online to see what the county commission vote was on the wheel tax and get distracted by “Best dog cake-eating contest ever,” you’re shaping the what you will see on news websites or on your social media feed — perhaps in a way that is not necessarily going to ensure that you get what you want or need to see.
Print newspaper metrics are straightforward: Measure copies produced and copies sold — one for one. Financial support for that daily miracle is simple to measure. But online, the metrics of the internet also measure your reading and surfing habits, click by click and minute by minute, meaning what you will be offered will change accordingly. You may find far more stories about dog cake-eating contests than proposed taxes as we and other news outlets navigate our way through this news-you-need vs. entertainment-you’re-drawn-to matrix.
But you readers — you thoughtful, well-informed, long-time news consumers — can lend a hand. Send us story ideas or tell us what you’d like to see more of and less of. Go to https://www.timesfreepress.com/story-ideas/ to help.