We transparently document our development processes in our Building Democracy columns, as part of our central commitment to strengthening society through journalism.
As 2021 began, Shasta Scout was just emerging. We’d popped up a landing page and conducted a series of audience interviews designed to help us find out if a local, independent news media organization dedicated to the public good was something Shasta County wanted. We already knew it was something Shasta County needed.
Local news coverage has been in sharp decline across our nation, due in large part to the massive changes that have developed in consumer habits and the burgeoning power of social media conglomerates. Corporations like Facebook and Google have fundamentally changed how we find, read, share, and make money from information. And because most of the news media industry is for-profit, these changes have fundamentally altered how the news is produced, consumed and distributed.
Unsurprisingly, these changes haven’t been good for local news, which is relatively expensive to produce. As declines in advertising revenue created financial pressure on local media organizations, many were bought out by larger news corporations like Sinclair and Gannett, which then began utilizing economies of scale, focusing on distributing more national and regional stories across their networks, in place of much of the previously local news.
We see this reflected here in Shasta County. In 2016, the legacy daily, the Redding Record-Searchlight, was bought out by Gannett, which merged with New Media in 2019, under the management of the Fortress Investment Group, a subsidiary of the Japanese company, Soft Bank Group Corp. Gannett Co, Inc has since become independent of Fortress but is still the largest newspaper media company in the country. Gannett Co., Inc consolidated its acquisition debt in 2021 in a loan whose biggest institutional holders, according to Harvard’s Future of Media Project, are the huge investment companies Vanguard and Blackrock.
As corporately owned media companies institute cost-saving measures, good local journalists are spread thinner and thinner. Less funding focused on local news stories means not only fewer stories overall, but also local stories that are both less broad in scope and less deeply grounded in data, documentation and analysis.
Many of Shasta County’s news stories are now mostly focused on reporting the “weather” of what’s happening in our communities without helping readers understand the “climate” driving it. This is why local news agencies so often remix and reprint the press releases of local agencies without digging deeper to find out what the press releases haven’t said. And it’s why, despite often obvious patterns in how local government and other institutions wield power and money, most troubling incidents are usually reported as one-time events, rather than the result of a deeper issue.
At the same time, journalists on deadline-focused breaking-news beats lack the time to produce solutions-oriented journalism, meaning that many news stories generate a feeling of either false security or hopelessness, rather than empowering the reader. And as journalists become increasingly aware of how traditional practices, such as how police news is covered, and how the lack of diversity in many newsrooms can perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions, they often lack the voice to change how the newsroom operates.
It’s not a coincidence that with these deficits in local news, misinformation is proliferating and our communities are polarizing. Research shows that we decide what to believe in seconds, based not on a careful review of facts but on our instincts. And large media conglomerates are poised to exploit those instincts, pushing us to click on stories that drive us deeper into our political and social corners and away from the neighbors we actually share our community with.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the increasing lack of local independent news threatens American democracy and compounds the many existing threats to civil rights.
Economists call local journalism a public good, because it’s essential to civic society, but not lucrative enough for a competitive market to fund it — so its very existence is in danger.
That’s why we’re building a local, independent, civic news organization.
Local, because that’s where democracy begins. Fact-based, comprehensive local news provides a foundational strength to communities, making us an informed electorate, prepared to use our voices and our vote to build the cities, counties, states and nations we want to live in.
Independent, to reduce the corrupting influence of money and power, both corporate and private, on what and how we report.
And civic, because we believe that the role of the media is not only to inform but to engage the public; that our readers are not spectators but participants in their local news; and that by creating public debate we enrich and strengthen a democratic community.
Today we’re proud to be launching our new website as well as our donation process. We think funding an independent, civic news media organization is community service at its finest. And the truth is we can’t build an independent press without your financial support, which will expand our coverage so that we can tell more of the stories that build democracy.
If you’re already subscribed to the Record Searchlight or donating to A News Cafe, we hope you’ll continue to support them as we work to grow and strengthen our coverage. Shasta County needs and deserves a diversity of quality news sources with different approaches and areas of focus. Together, we can tell the stories of our community, hold power accountable, and provide the information our community needs to strengthen democracy in Shasta County.