Fewer Reporters, Social Media & Artificial Intelligence Challenges, and an ongoing Funding Puzzle were Discussed at the Chappaqua Library Panel Event
David McKay Wilson, now a columnist for The Journal News, began working for the Gannett in 1986. At the time, he recalled, “every town was covered, every school board.”
“You got that Sunday newspaper that was like this,” he said, using his hands to signal the edition’s heft. “That of course has all changed.”
Wilson was one of four journalists on a panel on the future of local journalism held March 22 at the Chappaqua Library. The panel was moderated by Inside Press publisher Grace Bennett.
Martin Wilbur, editor-in-chief of The Examiner, expressed a similar concern, recalling that in the past every community and school district would be covered by its own fulltime reporter.
“When you consider just in about 30 years, the diminishment of that, it is alarming,” Wilbur said. “At The Examiner, I feel like a guy with one water bucket, and I’ve got 10 places where my roof is leaking, and I am running around.”
The diminished presence of local news was a major theme of the panel discussion. Since 2005, Bennett noted in her introductory remarks, some 2,500 newspapers have closed in the US, a quarter of the total, with the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating that trend.
“The influence and purpose of journalism and the value of the Fourth Estate has been clear for centuries,” remarked Bennett. “In trying times like these, our nation could use not less journalism, but more, and we need new government funding and research and a template for saving and even expanding journalism.”
Modern Day Tech Challenges
“It is very difficult to adapt the traditional structure of news to a lot of newfangled media,” said Asher Stockler, a government accountability reporter for The Journal News. “I don’t know how I could condense a story, let’s say, about police brutality into a TikTok.”
While local newspapers have been shut down or scaled back their staff, there’s been an explosion of low-quality news sources.
“In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 54% of Americans got their news sometimes or often from social media, the number one source being Facebook,” said Michelle Falkenstein, a freelance culture reporter. “So, it is alarming, really.”
A handful of social media sites have a tremendous impact on what articles get views and clicks, a dynamic Stockler called “one of the biggest threats” to a robust news industry. Clickbait headlines can skew a social media site’s algorithm to promote vapid regurgitations of old stories.
“Even with, ‘if it bleeds it leads,’ a lot of times it was a sensationalized version of some sort of actual basis,” Stockler said, referring to the old adage that gruesome stories were typically featured prominently. Often with clickbait, he said, “there is no new information.”
And then there is the effect that 280-character tweets and 30-second reels have had on the attention spans of news consumers.
“You can’t write long anymore,” said Falkenstein. “If I get 800 words, I feel like I hit the jackpot.”
Addressing Artificial Intelligence
Soon, reporters will have to contend with advanced AI – artificial intelligence – which Stockler called an “impending disaster.”
AI can be a reporting tool, he acknowledged, but there is a danger if it is used to replace instead of supplement the reporting process.
“What do you do when an algorithm creates something libelous or something defamatory?” Stockler asked. “I just think it is going to open a rift in terms of whatever trust is left in the content generation business.”
Despite all the headwinds facing local news, the conversation was far from all gloom and despair. Social media brought with it some benefits, the panelists noted, including the ability to engage with their readers.
“I’m a boomer and I love Facebook,” said Wilson. “I know that is not popular in some settings but I really do.”
Wilson said he posts all his stories on Facebook and other social media sites.
“Part of my journalism is being on Facebook and having these interactions with people who I know,” he said. “It’s an engagement that I enjoy, and I think that it has got to be part of journalism today.”
Certain parts of the country, Falkenstein explained, are news deserts, where there is little to no coverage of what is happening locally. “People end up paying more to live in these communities, because they are not aware of things that are going on with taxes and that sort of thing or pet projects that might come up,” she said. “They also don’t vote as much. They don’t feel as invested.”
Better News in Places Like Westchester
Though the local news scene is less robust than it once was, Westchester and the Hudson Valley have “bucked the trend a little bit,” Bennett posited.
“In Westchester, we are relatively lucky. There is an informed citizenry or a citizenry that wants to learn more about what is going on,” said Wilbur. “And there is enough disposable income among businesses and organizations that a lot of places around the country do not have.”
And while the platforms and the technology may continue to change, the key to retaining readers’ trust is much the same – “doing really good work,” he added. That includes transparent sourcing, printing opposing opinions, and running corrections when necessary.
“We don’t know the next platform or the next thing six weeks, six months, six years. We just know it’s going to change, and it’s going to continue to change,” concluded Wilbur. “And the organizations that survive are the ones who will best be able to adapt to whatever might come their way.”