When he was a young sociologist, Eric Klinenberg went to Chicago after the 1995 heat wave that killed hundreds of vulnerable residents and made an embarrassment of the tell-me-something-I-don't-know CDC study by actually identifying why people in some neighbourhoods died at much higher rates than in other neighbourhoods.
Now, in an essay he wrote yesterday for the Seattle Times, Klinenberg turned his keen eye to what happens when local sources of news are taken over by conglomerates.
Like sprawl neighbourhoods stripped of their complexity and diversity and left unable to respond to challenges, newsmedia stripped of their local, diverse sources of information and perspective are incapable of helping local residents to participate meaningfully in civic affairs.
Healthy systems depend on many sources of feedback and multiple redundancies so that if one mechanism fails, others can step in and take over. The media monopoly is like crop monoculture: if it gets infected with a disease that prevents it from working properly, we have nothing to fall back on.
Sixty years ago, 80 percent of the nation's newspapers were locally owned and operated. Sure, the journalistic quality was uneven, but the printed words were unmistakably homemade. Today, roughly 80 percent of the nation's newspapers are owned by chains, and the great majority of cities have only one major daily. ...
[M]onopoly newspapers have slashed their editorial staffs and eliminated important beats, substituting wire-service copy and syndicated columns for original reporting. I observed once-busy newsrooms where rows of empty desks and unused chairs gave them an eerie, deserted feel. The diminished supply of local watchdogs results in fewer checks on powerful institutions and individuals, and countless untold stories about news we need to know.
However, just as life hangs on tenaciously in the most unlikely places, Klinenberg notes that citizens are rushing to replace the broken feedback systems of monopolized media entities.
In the past decade, citizens grew so fed up with their local offerings that they began taking matters into their own hands. We all know about the rising generation of bloggers, citizen journalists and independent media producers. They have made important inroads into the media system, even if they have not added enough local reporting to compensate for the loss of professional journalists.
The less-reported yet equally important trend is that today millions of Americans — including religious conservatives in the Christian Coalition, progressives in MoveOn.org, the Gun Owners of America and the ACLU — are participating in the media reform movement, a bipartisan attempt to support policies that actually improve our access to news, information and cultural programming.
The challenge for independent news agencies like Raise the Hammer is to maintain and build a strong local focus, and to ensure that we continue to expand the range of discourse on civic affairs in a city of half a million that is dominated by a single print daily and a single commercial TV station.
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