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The Empty Town Hall

September 6, 2012
by Frank Viviano

The decline of newspapers has left Americans without a common source of information.

Somewhere, deep in my jaded heart, the America I want to believe in still lives, and it has a very specific image: Freedom of Speech, a Norman Rockwell oil painting commissioned in 1943 by The Saturday Evening Post.

My father hung a print of it in our home when I was growing up in the 1950s. Its central figure, a prototype everyman dressed in humble work clothes, has risen to speak at a town hall meeting. All heads in the packed room are turned toward him, all attention riveted on his words. For me, Rockwell’s idealized town hall scene came to represent essential, inarguable values: the freedom to speak, of course, but even more, the collective engagement implied in its crowded seats and turned heads, the palpable sense of community that made informed opinion and debate meaningful.

Of the countless monuments toppled in the Internet Age, few are more iconic than Rockwell’s version of democracy, which was so tangible that a child could grasp its suggestive power. In less than two decades, the communications revolution has emptied the town hall as Rockwell envisioned it—and upended Tip O’Neill’s celebrated axiom that “all politics is local.”

At the epicenter of this tsunami lie the remains of what was once the world’s most highly developed regional press. There were more than 8,000 daily and weekly newspapers in the United States in the 1970s, when I was a young journalist. Their quality and scope varied immensely. What united them was a fundamental role. The mainstream printed press was the dogged reporting machine that gathered facts on everything that defined a community and made it tick, kept relentless watch on the shenanigans of municipal and state governments, and set in motion the stories that propelled local television news broadcasts. Its leading periodicals were the crucial reservoirs of vital public data, “journals of record” that served every town and city in America. Nationwide, the circulation of daily newspapers in 1970, just over 62 million, was almost equal to the total number of U.S. households, which was 69 million.

The regional printed press, in short, was the de facto town hall of America: the principal forum in which issues large and small were presented, dissected, and debated before local voters. People may well have subscribed for reasons less exalted: the sports and comics pages, gossip columns, pop celebrity stories, and “high-caloric junk,” in the words of a former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. But as those tens of millions of Americans leafed through the paper, drawn by the exploits of Joe Montana or Garfield the cat, their eyes fell on weightier matters. A critical mass of citizen-voters wandered into the town hall.

Today, the vast press infrastructure that kept American voters informed for two centuries is in abject, catastrophic decline. U.S. households have grown in number to almost 115 million, while daily newspaper circulation has slid to 43 million—a drop in gross market penetration from about 90 percent four decades ago to just over 37 percent today.

Put simply, nothing has emerged online to fill that old information order’s role in the body politic.

The result is a twin crisis, with grave consequences not only to the press itself but also to the fundamental workings of democracy, a crisis that is obscured by popular conviction that the Internet has brought more information to more people than any other communications medium in history. The potential for that achievement is undeniable. But at the moment, in the hard test of performance, it often looks more like hype.

“It’s extraordinary how little even I know about election races in my own backyard today,” says former State Assemblyman Ted Lempert, who teaches California politics at Berkeley.

When Ted Lempert was first elected by San Mateo voters to the California legislature in 1988 at the age of 27, he was the youngest lawmaker in Sacramento. Few Americans had heard of the Internet then, and the World Wide Web was still two years away from conception. The Assembly paced its deliberations to rhythms as firmly established as the authority of its unchallenged leader, Willie Brown, who was halfway through a 15-year run as Speaker.

Lempert was a quick learner, successfully authoring a landmark environmental bill two years after his election—and 70 more pieces of legislation over the following decade—thanks to an implicit partnership with the capitol press corps. “I was able to get a great deal of legislation through precisely because the Chronicle and the L.A. Times covered the Assembly around the clock,” he recalls. “If your colleagues blocked an important bill, they couldn’t hide.”

Across the country, the three-way linkage of the media, voters, and public officials “was a 24/7 job back then, monitoring coverage, making endless decisions on how the mayor’s schedule should be organized—on how the city should respond to what was reported,” agrees Berkeley journalism professor Tom Goldstein, who served as New York Mayor Ed Koch’s press secretary in the early 1980s. “The situation is inconceivably different now.”

By 2000, the astounding growth of the Internet had begun to redesign the universe of information. In the ensuing ten years, the Chronicle‘s circulation plunged from nearly half of the Bay Area’s 1.6 million households at its height, to a scant 290,000—barely 11 percent of the region’s current 2.6 million households. Online readership stands at half that percentage. The San Francisco Examiner, proud flagship of the Hearst media empire for a century, has had four owners since 2000 and is now a give-away tabloid. The newspapers’ plunge brought massive cuts in staff—from 560 editorial employees at the Chronicle in 2001, to 130 in 2011—and inevitably, drastic reductions in the breadth and depth of coverage.

Today, as president of Children Now, a national advocacy organization, Ted Lempert oversees efforts that depend heavily on email and social networking utilities to inform and galvanize the public. He is as well-versed in the new information order as he once was in the old one. “There’s no choice,” he says. But as a lecturer at Berkeley, presiding over Poli Sci 171, California Politics, he keeps watch on state and regional government. And what he sees makes him profoundly uneasy.

Public opinion and legislative agendas alike, Lempert says, are dominated by “sensational issues, the kind that can go viral on the Internet in a few hours,” rather than focusing on critical problems that require significant time and concentration to explain. “The fact that our schools are chronically underfunded or that our kids are not well fed—these are core issues for our society, but they don’t attract sustained attention unless they involve violence or are celebrity related.”

Two decades ago, he adds, such issues “would probably have generated a multipart series in one or more of the regional dailies,” exerting pressures that politicians could not afford to ignore. “But that happens very rarely now.”

Variations on Lempert’s concerns are widely shared among political observers.

“The Internet and other new communications media have had their most marked political impact as mobilization devices,” says Jack Citrin, director of Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, noting the role that Facebook and Twitter played in such diverse arenas as the Obama campaign in 2008 and the Arab Spring in 2011. “They are ideal for fund-raising, for getting people to show up at rallies, and above all, for communicating with the like-minded. They tend to connect people who already agree with each other—like choosing to sit in the Cal section at the Big Game, instead of the Stanford section.” The town hall, in this sense, has been segregated, walled off into hostile and irreconcilable wings.

The end result, Citrin adds, “may not be a good thing from a public interest point of view.”

Cable television, led by Fox News and MSNBC, has also put a few bricks in that wall. Moreover, the profile-and-mobilize strategy “builds on previous trends,” dating back at least to the direct-mail campaigns of the 1970s, points out Ethan Rarick, director of Berkeley’s Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service. “These are not radical changes,” he maintains.

Yet the public, for its part, seems convinced that online communications are among the chief factors in confrontational politics. “Even as a majority of Americans feel that the Internet has generally helped them connect with others, a similar number also believe that the Internet has increased the influence of extreme views in the political debate,” a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center concluded.

There is no hidden conspiracy, right or left, at work in this troubling development. The emptying of the de facto town hall and the rupture of venerable links between public officials and voters are neutral products of the bottom line. With the arrival of the Internet, retailers were no longer obliged to purchase expensive ad space in newspapers or magazines. They were better off posting their own websites, targeted to preferred consumers by Google’s AdSense and similar profiling engines. Meanwhile, small-scale advertising, notably in the classified section, jumped ship for such free online services as Craigslist and eBay.

As recently as 2006, U.S. newspapers attracted nearly $50 billion worth of annual advertising, 95 percent of it aimed at readers of their print editions. By 2010, total print ad income had been sliced in half, to $22.8 billion, with a meager $3 billion online. Classified ad revenues, the vital margin of profit for many regional dailies, suffered the most, diving from about $17 billion to $5 billion, a 70 percent decline in four years.

What now pass for serious media operations online are “aggregators” such as Google News, Yahoo News, and The Huffington Post, which recycle the hugely diminished output of dying print enterprises, while (in Huffington’s case) pretending that armchair blogs are equivalent to original reporting. The creative initiatives and capital investments driving state-of-the-art communications technology have been concentrated almost entirely on delivery systems and frames for information. In a breathtaking stroke of irony, responsibility for the content of those frames has been left to the very industry that the Internet has bankrupted.

The absolute volume of pure data coursing through cyberspace may be enormous, but it is overwhelmingly secondhand and increasingly unmediated by editing or fact-checking. The blunt truth, so far, is that the brave new world of online information has proven a colossal bust in the establishment of institutions with the staffing, the resources, or the commitment to independently provide Americans with a steady flow of reliable news content.

Without such institutions, asks Tom Goldstein, “How do you forge a common understanding of what’s important?”

A decade or so ago, on my annual trips home to San Francisco, I began noticing that silence often greeted my questions about the latest developments at City Hall, or in the Bay Area’s Sacramento and Washington congressional delegations. With each passing year, fewer and fewer of my friends seemed in touch with their own city, their own region, or the State of California.

They were a thoroughly mixed sample, ranging from university professors and fellow journalists—most of whom subscribed to The New York Times, and many to The Wall Street Journal and The Economist—to my Market Street barber and the barista at my favorite Mission District café. In the 1990s, all of them read the Chronicle daily; by 2005 or so, as far as I could tell, none of them did. “It’s not what it used to be,” was a common explanation, a critique that simultaneously measured both the Chron‘s stunning but unavoidable cutbacks and my friends’ lapse into local ignorance.

Strong words, but how else to put it? Without the perspective of a viable and widely read local daily, no one really knew what was going on.

Last January, the Probolsky Research polling firm conducted a survey of likely California voters in this year’s general election, in both English and Spanish. To cover the telephone generation gap, calls were divided between landlines (preferred by older residents) and cell phones (gadget of choice among the young). The survey’s questions addressed key state propositions and bond issues slated for the ballot—most notably a bond permitting the state government to borrow a whopping $11.1 billion to overhaul Northern California’s Bay Delta water system.

An astounding 78 percent of registered Bay Area voters admitted that they didn’t know or hadn’t heard “anything” about the Bay Delta, although the bond issue has been under serious legislative consideration since 2007. Barely 1.5 percent were even aware that the area faced a water problem.

As Ted Lempert suggests, this is the kind of issue that once would have prompted a multipart series in big regional dailies, leading up to the election. In the void left by the old information order’s collapse and the Internet’s failure to replace it, he warns, “There is an absolute danger to democracy.”

Worrywarts like Lempert and me “just don’t get it.” That’s the response many young people have when I voice doubts about the Internet’s effects. To the generation born and bred in the Internet Age, the reign of the old mainstream press has come to a decisive and unmourned end.

It may be comforting to assume that younger readers have simply switched to online newspapers. But the evidence suggests that they haven’t. The Chronicle‘s Internet edition, SFGate, draws nearly 12 million unique visitors per month, a figure that seems impressive until it is decoded in byzantine calculations that (depending on which formula is employed) by my count arrive at a market penetration as low as 5 to 6 percent. On the average, one in 20 residents of the Bay Area now takes a look at the Chronicle online each day.

Yet even that meager accomplishment makes SFGate the region’s largest local Internet news provider by an enormous margin—40 times greater than the minuscule market penetration achieved by the online-only Bay Citizen, one of the best-funded regional news websites in the United States. Young people are, indeed, focusing their attention almost entirely on the computer screen, but not on comprehensive news sites that evoke the town hall.

Between 2007 and 2010, the number of Americans under age 30 who cited the Internet as their main source of news nearly doubled, rising from 34 percent to 65 percent. Those are the very years in which social networking took the world by storm. Some 5,000 tweets were sent each day in 2007, and Facebook registered 30 million members. By 2010, the tweet count had ballooned to 50 million daily and Facebook’s membership to more than 500 million. Today, their respective numbers are 340 million daily tweets and a Facebook membership approaching one billion.

Imbued with every new generation’s certainty that their way is the optimal way, 20-somethings contend that the Internet of Facebook and Twitter is itself a gigantic grassroots democracy, a leveling medium that has tossed old dinosaurs like the Chronicle onto the ash heap of history and replaced them with a limitless cornucopia of smaller, imaginative websites that charge nothing for their output.

Up to a point, they are right. The Internet has made it feasible, both economically and technologically, to focus on the affairs of an area as small as a single city block, or on a single, narrowly defined topic. To keep up with my own old neighborhood in San Francisco, a chunk of the Western Addition centered around lower Haight Street, I follow Haighteration ( Countless operations like it have appeared over the past few years in the Bay Area, a fertile incubator of “hyperlocal news sites.”

Many graduate schools of journalism, including Berkeley’s, are investing serious time and energy in the future of hyperlocal news. The Berkeley J-school produces three sites on a single half-million-dollar Ford Foundation grant. Mission Local covers San Francisco’s Mission District; Richmond Confidential covers the East Bay city of the same name; and Oakland North focuses on an increasingly trendy corner of Alameda County.

There’s no denying that the cumulative effect of hyperlocal sites marks an advance for finely calibrated grassroots coverage. The problem is that almost no one pays regular cumulative visits to these sites. A resident of San Francisco’s Western Addition is no more likely to follow Richmond Confidential than a Richmond resident is to bookmark Haighteration. The hyperlocal identity of the Bay Area is a mosaic of disparate and seemingly unrelated fragments, most of them too small to attract regional notice.

In October of last year, even Mission Local, the most popular of the three J-school sites, had only 64,946 unique visitors and 198,847 pageviews—an average of three pages per person. But in an area with an estimated population of 47,000, this is nonetheless a reasonable success story by hyperlocal standards. Oakland North had 55,026 unique monthly visitors; Richmond Confidential just 16,626.

The picture is far gloomier in AOL’s highly promoted Patch network, a nationwide hyperlocal online news syndicate with more than 60 outlets in the Bay Area. Although traffic stats are not disclosed by AOL, leaked figures from Southern California revealed that its 68 Patch editions had an average of 4,900 unique monthly visitors per site in November 2010. News analyst Ken Doctor of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab estimates total U.S. Patch annual revenues at about $18 million, while AOL spends $160 million yearly on the network.

What’s missing in the portrait of vibrant grassroots journalism online is critical mass, a large and regular readership that carries effective weight at the polls. Hyperlocal beats seldom coincide with the boundaries of voting constituencies. This all but excludes a significant role in the broader concerns that define the future for any modern urban community. Water is only one example. Transportation questions—roads, bridges, bus lines, trains, bike paths—cross hyperlocal boundaries. Crime and pollution cross boundaries. Regional publications, with their extensive reach, made sense in the context of political geography. Hyperlocal sites make noise, but it is seldom heard at City Hall or in Sacramento.

What’s missing is the broad middle ground that was the home turf of regional newspapers—the ground where Tip O’Neill’s axiom had binding force, between the global reach of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and the pinpoint focus of Haighteration and Oakland North.

What’s missing are those turned heads in Norman Rockwell’s town hall, the kind of informed local electorate without which democracy is reduced to incoherence.

Frank Viviano is a longtime foreign correspondent and the author of Blood Washes Blood. His article “A Vacation Goes South” appeared in the Summer issue of California.
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