News Deserts and Information Archipelagos

The newspaper of record is dead in many communities, killed by greed, bad business practice, and the Internet. But don't worry, it's being replaced by a new breed of newsroom.

PUBLISHED JUN 7, 2023 9:22 A.M.
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As the news desert fades, the information islands come into view.

As the news desert fades, the information islands come into view.   Andrew Repp (desert) Studio GM (islands)   Shutterstock/Standard

A bill recently passed in the California Assembly, AB 886, the so-called California Journalism Preservation Act, is a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to address the decline of local journalism.

The bill creates a mechanism for online platforms such as Google and Facebook, which derive revenue from online ads displayed adjacent to links or other content from qualified news organizations, to pay a “usage fee” to the newsroom from which the content originates.

I’m opposed to the bill.(And I looked up the information for my California state assembly member and senator and sent an email letting them know about my opposition.) 

For one thing, the legislation misunderstands the game theory we’re working with. We want Google and Facebook and Twitter to display links to our articles and send people to our site. In fact, our articles and most online news is engineered to be linked-to by Google and Facebook, etc. 

The proposed legislation complicates that game theory by enforcing a disincentive for the online platforms to link to our articles, thus hindering the discovery process by which people learn about us.

At a more fundamental level, the bill doesn’t address a major reason for the decline of local journalism, which is the roll-up,  starting in the ‘80's, of local newsrooms into large chains, which were then captured by private equity. These were immediately encumbered by massive debt and strip-mined in search of the 30-40% profit margins of the pre-Internet days, which persisted until major revenue sources like classified, auto and real estate advertising jumped to Craigslist, cars.com and realtor.com.

This has led to what industry analysts and pundits call “news deserts,” in which the daily or weekly paper of record has been gutted.

Here in the Central Coast region where California Local is headquartered, this is evident in the local dailies—the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Monterey Herald and especially the Salinas Californian, which lost its last remaining reporter recently.  All three are owned by chains, and all have suffered through endless rounds of layoffs and firings of reporters and editors in the last several decades, leading to a degradation of local coverage.

The narrative of the “news desert” is true to a point, but is mostly describing what’s happening to the bigs—the newspaper chains, the formerly large newsrooms such as the Sentinel, which once employed dozens of journalists and editors to cover Santa Cruz County.

But it may be that the days of communities being served by one or two large newsrooms are over, and that by focusing on the demise of “newspapers of record” and the narrative of the “news desert” we’re missing the emerging reality of communities being served by multiple smaller newsrooms that are popping up, supplementing the ones already there. Here in Santa Cruz County, we’re served by a dozen newsrooms of various sizes covering various aspects of the county, and over 30 online blogs and magazines and who knows how many email newsletters and podcasts and social media groups and subreddits. 

Our county has been somewhat famously (mis)characterized as a news desert, but it’s really an information archipelago, a sea of news and information islands. In addition to Santa Cruz-headquartered, 2022 California News Publishers Association award-winning California Local, Santa Cruz County is also home to 2022 LION award-winning  Santa Cruz Local (no relation), a three-person shop that is doing an amazing job covering housing, homelessness and a few other focused “beats” of vital local interest. Our local alt-weekly, Good Times, was awarded first-place for General Excellence from CNPA, which means it is the best weekly newspaper of its size in the state of California. And finally, The Pajaronian, founded in 1868, won the 2022 CNPA General Excellence award for its tier in the print division.

That's some news desert.

Recognizing the existence of information archipelagos, one of the things we want to do at California Local is to provide a unifying one-stop portal to all of the local newsrooms to make it easier for people to discover and connect with the resources available in their communities.

It’s true, as noted in the introduction of the proposed California Journalism Preservation Act, that the so-called fourth estate is vital to the functioning of democracy. You can help local journalism the old-fashioned way without any need for cumbersome legislation, by supporting your local newsrooms. They’re out there. Subscribe or donate today. If you own a business in the community, underwrite or advertise with a local newsroom. 

Investing directly in local journalism is investing in a better community and an accountable local democracy. 

(Editor's correction: This blog was updated to note that Santa Cruz is actually home to four 2022 award-winning local news rooms, not three as originally stated.)

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