Speaking at a Northwestern University online event to debut a new documentary on the local news crisis, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio expressed support for a temporary anti-trust exemption that would give news publishers more leverage to negotiate with tech giants over advertising revenue.
The Medill Local News Initiative event on Sept. 30 marked the first showing of “Newstown,” a film by Northwestern professor Craig Duff that examines the aftermath of last year’s closing of the 150-year-old Youngstown Vindicator newspaper in northeast Ohio, where Duff grew up.
Some see the fate of the “Vindy” as a warning sign for what other urban areas may face.
Event moderator Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, asked Ohio’s senior senator about possible federal action to help struggling local news outlets.
Franklin, who heads the Medill Local News Initiative, acknowledged that asking for government help “makes journalists uncomfortable because they’re concerned about their independence, and rightfully so.” He asked Brown about the proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, noting that it would “temporarily exempt news publishers from antitrust laws so they could bargain with tech giants like Google and Facebook for a bigger slice of digital advertising revenue.”
Google, Facebook and Amazon take in nearly 70% of U.S. digital ad spending, according to industry estimates.
Brown said that in general he would like to see antitrust laws enforced more vigorously, but giving news publishers a temporary exemption might make sense in order to rein in the big tech companies.
“Our tech giants are way, way too big,” he said. “I think part of this is pushing back on their power generally. I would be willing to vote for something that would give temporary exemptions so that the real media could fight back against the tech giants.”
In addition to Brown, the panelists were Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz; chief media correspondent David Folkenflik of National Public Radio; Youngstown Mayor Jamael “Tito” Brown; and Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association. They offered a variety of insights into the struggles of local journalism. But first came the screening of Duff’s film.
‘Not Just the Story of Loss’
Charles Whitaker, Medill’s Dean, introduced “Newstown” by noting Youngstown’s plight.
“This is not just the story of loss, however,” he said. “It’s the story of those other outlets that are coming to take the place of the Vindicator and renew hope and inform the public.”
As Duff puts it in his film, “A city’s only newspaper is kind of like a rainforest. Once you cut it down, you can’t replant it. But other things can grow there.”
A city’s only newspaper is kind of like a rainforest. Once you cut it down, you can’t replant it. But other things can grow there.Craig Duff, Medill professor and creator of “Newstown”
“Newstown” highlights the journalists who are trying to fill the gap.
Some are from the area, like the Business Journal, local TV stations and the Tribune Chronicle in nearby Warren, which created an edition for Youngstown that features the Vindy’s nameplate.
Some are national, such as the Compass Experiment, a new joint effort of the McClatchy news chain and the Google News Initiative that created a digital outlet for Youngstown’s home county called Mahoning Matters. The Mahoning staff includes a journalist from Report for America, a national program for emerging journalists.
And then there was a local-national combo: the area’s Business Journal and the national ProPublica investigative outlet teamed up on a hard-hitting project.
Why Local Is Important
NPR’s Folkenflik praised the local journalists who refuse to give up on Youngstown.
“I’m so admiring of people who are sticking around and saying, ‘These are my folks, this is my community, let’s find a way to make it work,’” he said. “I wouldn’t look askance at anybody in that situation who said, ‘You know, I can get a job in Oakland. I can get a job in Dallas. I’m going to go do this for myself and my family.’ But still, for those who stay, they are trying to fulfill this job.”
Both Schultz and Mayor Brown emphasized the irreplaceable value of reporters who live in the area they cover.
“I look at how we’re covered by reporters who don’t live here,” said Schultz, who grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio. “I’m a professor in residence at my alma mater, the journalism school at Kent State. I tell my students all the time, particularly around election season, ‘You can find somebody to say something stupid on any street corner in America. Unfortunately, they tend to come to Ohio for it.’”
You can find somebody to say something stupid on any street corner in America. Unfortunately, they tend to come to Ohio for it.Connie Schultz, columnist
Mayor Brown said a lack of local reporting on topics like civil unrest means “we only hear the national narrative. For me, I want it to be the local narrative.”
Dependable local news coverage is especially important in difficult times like this, Youngstown’s mayor said.
“COVID-19, civil unrest – I need something consistent,” Mayor Brown said. “I need to know where to go to find the information. And I want the facts. I don’t want the fear, I want the facts. I think that’s what happens when you don’t have that stable cornerstone in your community like Youngstown, Ohio, and the Vindicator.”
The Local Media Association’s Lane was asked to assess how the pandemic has affected local news.
“Across the board, local media companies have been negatively impacted by COVID, of course,” Lane said. “Some simply devastated, others just mildly disrupted. But suffice to say, everybody is suffering. … Many are in survival mode.”
A positive trend is that “COVID has forced a lot of newspapers to accelerate their transition to digital,” she said. “A great example is the Houston Defender. It’s an African-American newspaper, and prior to COVID they had less than 4% of their revenue coming from digital. They’re now probably at about 25%.”
Praise for ‘Newstown’
Duff said at the event that he wanted his film to show the character and sense of community in Youngstown.
“When people think about Youngstown and the area, they oftentimes have a mythology of the sort of downtrodden, Rust Belt mentality,” Duff said. “But there’s an incredible resilience among the people there.”
Panelists said they thought Duff hit the mark.
“Craig, you did a great job capturing the city of Youngstown,” said Mayor Brown.
Folkenflik called it “a narrative sustained by facts, not just a story to be spun.”
“Craig, the way you honor the storytellers as well as the region they’re covering really hit me,” said Schultz.
There will be more Youngstowns, right? We know that. I’m worried about Cleveland, for example, and Pittsburgh.Nancy Lane, CEO, Local Media Association
Lane offered praise along with a warning.
“Craig, you had me in tears because there will be more Youngstowns, right? We know that,” she said. “I’m worried about Cleveland, for example, and Pittsburgh. They are two major cities that I think could be the next two news deserts and lose their daily newspapers. But we believe a healthy local ecosystem requires many players and we’re rooting for all to win. That’s why we like what’s going on in Youngstown.”
Watch the complete panel discussion here: