Note: Our friend and colleague James Sinclair writes Stop and Move, a blog about planning and transportation issues in Fresno and the Central Valley. He published this post today about the challenges and importance of local journalism, and we're reposting it here because it's an important topic, and, yes, also because he put in a nice plug for supporting Streetsblog at the end. Check out Stop and Move, a really good source of planning news from the heart of the Central Valley.
It’s almost the end of 2019, and you’ve probably seen a bunch of those “10-year challenge” posts (#10YearChallenge) where people look back at 2009/2010 and compare themselves or things with how they are now.
Sadly, it’s not something you’ll really see from local media. If the Fresno Bee did a #10YearChallenge post, it would probably look something like this, with the old Bee on the left, and the current Bee on the right.
A tale of two newspapers: on the left, the $2 Sunday @StarTribune from Dec 1st, 92 pages and 10 sections; on the right, the $3 Sunday @FresnoBee from Dec 1, 42 pages and 6 sections. The cost per page to the reader for the Bee is more than 3X higher than the Star Tribune. pic.twitter.com/XgV4QMDkGX— Fresno2Minneapolis (@SFGlobeTrekker) December 4, 2019
Unfortunately, even as Central California has continued to grow at a very rapid pace, the fourth estate has been heading in the opposite direction. This year, the decline in local journalism appears to have accelerated, with the Bee ending their Saturday edition and the Fresno State Collegian sounding the alarm that they might only make it one more year.
It would be easy to blame Fresno’s demographics for the decline, but that’s not really the case. See Martinez, where the local paper recently announced their closure. The median household income there is $75,679. Versus just $44,853 in Fresno. The fall of local media has been seen in every state, and will accelerate next year thanks to this:
The Gatehouse-Gannett merger is complete, and the new combined company announced the first round of layoffs last week on #LoveMyNewspaperDay, reports Poynter. Though it is not clear where all of the cuts are from, Poynter said that they include both newsroom and non-newsroom jobs.
The internet was supposed to give everybody a voice, but hot Twitter takes are not journalism. Some great folks out there like Henry Fung and Andy HS do a fantastic public service by live-tweeting local council meetings – something the Bee can no longer afford to pay journalists to do. While those two (and others) do a great public service with their tweets, they don’t see a cent in revenue. And the second the rest of their life gets in the way, the public service ends with no continuity. There’s also the issue that Twitter is a horrible median for archiving anything. If you miss it, it’s gone.
The reality is that no one has been able to crack the funding code for journalism. The Martinez Gazette says they made it this far from the income generated from mandatory legal notices. They can’t charge for that online. Most news outlets have turned to locking news behind paywalls. Including the Fresno Bee. The fact that they keep shrinking indicates that it’s not working. It also keeps the important news from the people (not that this upcoming example is critical news).
You’ll notice this blog doesn’t have ads. I used to, a few years ago. It generated pennies. Let’s be honest, most people use ad-blockers. I removed the ads because I felt like what came in wasn’t worth the inconvenience to the two people that would see them. The lack of revenue is probably why Fresno doesn’t have a blog scene. People try, realize the well is dry, and give up. As far as I know, the only way to make money on a blog is via Amazon or credit card affiliate links, but what’s the fun in that?
So why do I blog? For me, it’s a side hobby/public service. I do it because I think it’s important for Fresno to have. Unfortunately, that isn’t a great model either, because I can sometimes go a month (or more) without a post. Sorry Fresno, but sometimes other stuff comes first.
And that really sucks for the Central Valley.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the media completely screwed up the coverage of an obscure funding line in a plan that nobody reads. It’s hard to blame the reporters – there simply is not enough staff time to sit down and read a plan like that. It took me around 6 hours to read it, try to understand it, and write about it. The old-school reporters who might have known the inner working of the agency from their 30 years on the beat are long gone, via a buyout package they were mostly forced to take a few years ago.
The problem is that without journalists to understand and explain what’s going on, the loudest guy in the room gets to set the message. And sometimes the loudest guy in the room is an imbecile. Other times, he’s a liar. Fresno is full of these characters, and they keep getting elected. You know the names – Nunes, Brandau, Patterson. These guys are experts at what they do, and that’s speaking loudly about things they don’t understand or are paid to not understand.
We all know about Fresno’s history with powerful sprawl developers who used to own the council. History repeats, and we keep seeing the same powerful players doing what they can to put their income ahead of what’s best for the city.
Local journalism is needed to call them out and let people know what’s going on.
There’s really only one online venue I know that constantly writes about Central California planning and transportation issues, and that’s Streetsblog California. Melanie Curry puts out a few great posts a week, at a much faster pace than I can manage.
Three years ago, I made a post called “Help Bring National Attention to Central California Transportation Issues,” and recommended making a small donation to Streetsblog.
I think that post and request is more relevant than ever. Streetsblog is entirely funded through grants and donations, and that income isn’t stable, so they need help. And Streetsblog NYC is one of the best examples as to how a well funded media outlet can bring positive change. Their constant pressure gets results.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease after all.
Anyway, I plan to keep writing on this blog, but can’t make any promises as to the frequency of those posts. So if you want to see more reporting on planning and transportation issues in the central valley, consider donating to Streetsblog.
And if you can’t afford to, I recommend at least making some noise. Start your own blog. Retweet local journalism. Attend public meetings. Let local politicians know that you care and are paying attention.