Category Archives: Journalism

Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

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UN blasts Trump for his war on the press


Donald Trump’s war on the press comes at a time when American journalism is dying, its ranks radically thinned as giant chains, many of them owned by investment banks interested only in profit rather than community service.

He ramped up his attacks Thursday night [2 August], devoting most of the evening’s rally to a relentless attack on the Fourth Estate, as the Associated Press reports:

“Whatever happened to the free press? Whatever happened to honest reporting?” Trump asked, pointing to the media in the back of the hall. “They don’t report it. They only make up stories.”

Time and time again, Trump denounced the press for underselling his accomplishments and doubting his political rise.

>snip<

“Only negative stories from the fakers back there,” the president declared.

With each denunciation, the crowd jeered and screamed at the press in the holding pen at the back of the arena.

His assault on journalism came on the same day that two leading United Nations officials spoke out against his escalating assault on the free press.

From the United Nations:

Human rights experts denounce Trump’s attacks against media

The United Nations expert on free expression has condemned President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press, warning that the US leader’s rhetoric is eroding public trust in the media and could spark violence against journalists.

“His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and Edison Lanza, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said in a joint statement on Thursday.

Mr. Trump has labelled the media as being the “enemy of the American people,” “very dishonest” and “fake news,” the statement said. Moreover, he has accused the press of distorting democracy and spreading conspiracy theories and blind hatred.

“These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” the experts said, expressing concern that the attacks risk increasing targeted violence against journalists.

The experts stressed that over the course of his presidency, Mr. Trump and his administration have sought to undermine reporting that had uncovered fraud, abuse, potential illegal conduct and disinformation.

“Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavoured outlets,” the experts continued, “he suggests nefarious motivations or animus.” However, they pointed out that not even one time was he able to show any specific reporting that was driven by untoward motivations.

“It is critical that the US administration promote the role of a vibrant press and counter rampant disinformation,” they underscored.

To this end, they urged President Trump to not only “stop using his platform to denigrate the media” but to condemn the attacks, including press threats at his own rallies.

Affirming that media attacks go beyond Mr. Trump’s language, they encouraged his administration, including the Justice Department, to “avoid pursuing legal cases against journalists in an effort to identify confidential sources,” saying that it undermines the media’s independence and blocks the public from accessing information.

The experts also appealed to the Government to “stop pursuing whistle-blowers through the tool of the Espionage Act.”

“We stand with the independent media in the United States, a community of journalists and publishers and broadcasters long among the strongest examples of professional journalism worldwide,” they asserted. “We especially urge the press to continue, where it does so, its efforts to hold all public officials accountable.”

The experts encouraged all media to act in solidarity against the efforts of President Trump to favour some outlets over others.

“Two years is two years too much, and we strongly urge that President Trump and his administration and his supporters end these attacks,” they concluded.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

As someone who’s devoted his working life to practicing the craft of journalism, we are deeply alarmed at the state of the American press.

Trump wants what any tyrant wants: A silencing of opposing voices.

And with the press now own by those seeking profit over principle, the prognosis is bleak,

Chart of the day: America’s dying journalism


From the Pew Research Center:, a graphic accompaniment to a recent post:

From the accompanying report:

From 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23%. In 2008, about 114,000 newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers and videographers – worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and “other information services” (the best match for digital-native news publishers). By 2017, that number declined to about 88,000, a loss of about 27,000 jobs.

This decline in overall newsroom employment was driven primarily by one sector: newspapers. Newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45% over the period, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017.

Of the five industries studied, notable job growth occurred only in the digital-native news sector. Since 2008, the number of digital-native newsroom employees increased by 79%, from about 7,400 workers to about 13,000 in 2017. This increase of about 6,000 total jobs, however, fell far short of offsetting the loss of about 32,000 newspaper newsroom jobs during the same period. (A separate Pew Research Center analysis of reported layoffs at newspapers and digital-native news outlets found that nearly a quarter of the digital outlets examined experienced layoffs between January 2017 and April 2018, despite the overall increase in employment in this sector.)

Newsroom employment figures in broadcast television were relatively stable, remaining at about 28,000 between 2008 and 2017. Employment also remained relatively stable in cable television, at about 3,000 over the same period. In contrast, radio broadcasting lost about a fourth (27%) of its newsroom employees, dropping from about 4,600 workers in 2008 to about 3,300 in 2017. Percentage-wise this places radio behind newspapers as the industry with the greatest decline, though the overall number of jobs lost – about 1,250 – is 25 times smaller than the loss in the newspaper sector.

Police kill at twice the reported rate, study shows


And the killings soar in rural areas and mountain states, Trump territory.

Overall, police account for one in twelve of the nation’s homicides, according to new research just released by Cornell University. Blacks are disproprtionately represented as are Latinos.

Mountain states account for one-sixth of all homicides, nearly three times rate of major cities, followed by rural areas.

We would also note, following up on our recent post on the collapse of American journalism, that the areas with the highest killing rates are concentrated in areas when their are few papers, and those left running are often owned by investment bankers with no interest in hard-hitting investigations that might alienate advertisers.

The prevalence of higher police killings of minorities in the Bible Belt recalls a time before integration when folks of color relief on The Negro Motorist Green Book to find safe places to sleep in the misnamed era of “separate but equal.”

That said, here’s the results of the research, via Cornell University:

According to a new study led by a Cornell researcher, an average of nearly three men in the United States are killed by police use of deadly force every day. This accounts for 8 percent of all homicides with adult male victims – twice as many as identified in official statistics.

These starkly contrasting numbers are part of the study, “Risk of Police-Involved Death by Race/Ethnicity and Place, United States, 2012-2018”  [$38 for non-sundscribers], led by Frank Edwards, postdoctoral associate with Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, published July 19 in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Official statistics show that deaths attributable to legal intervention by police account for close to 4 percent of all homicides with adult male victims,” Edwards said. “We estimated that over this period, police were responsible for about 8 percent of all U.S. homicides with adult male victims – or 2.8 per day on average.”

Past work on police-involved mortality has been limited by the absence of systematic data, Edwards said. Such data, primarily collected through the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest-Related Deaths program or the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Report, are widely acknowledged as unreliable due to limited scope and voluntary data reporting.

“Police departments are not required by law to report deaths that occur due to officer action and may have strong incentives to be sensitive with data due to public affairs and community relations,” he said. “Effectively, we don’t know what’s happening if all we look at is the official data.”

In response to such shortcomings, journalists, activists and researchers have begun collecting data that count police-involved deaths through public records and media coverage, a method the Bureau of Justice Statistics says is actually more reliable than relying on police departments to report, Edwards said.

Through this method, the research found that the risk of being killed by police is 3.2 to 3.5 times higher for black men than for white men, and between 1.4 and 1.7 times higher for Latino men.

Edwards and his co-authors identified 6,295 adult male victims of police homicide over a six-year period between Jan. 1, 2012, and Feb. 12, 2018 – averaging about 1,028 deaths per year, or 2.8 deaths per day.

Of those 6,295 victims, 2,993 were white, 1,779 were black, 1,145 were Latino, 114 were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 94 were American Indian/Alaska Native. During this period, black men were killed by police at a rate of at least 2.1 per 100,000 population, Latino men at a rate of at least 1.0 per 100,000, and white men at least 0.6 per 100,000.

The research also showed that this risk varies dramatically by location. The data showed that although risk is high in large urban areas typically associated with police homicide, the majority of police homicides occur in less-populated regions.

“One thing that really stands out within our research is that while the large central metros see a large chunk of killings by police, it is only a third of the total,” Edwards said. “That means two-thirds of all the shootings we’re finding are in suburban, smaller metropolitan and rural areas, which have received scant attention from both researchers and the media.”

In the Mountain States, police were responsible for about 17 percent of all homicides, while in the Middle Atlantic states, police accounted for about 5 percent of all homicides. Police accounted for more than 10 percent of all homicides in predominantly rural areas and about 7 percent of all homicides in large central metropolitan areas.

Edwards says that though this research provides more accurate data on the use of deadly force by police, it does not paint the whole picture.

“The new data that we’re using is capturing a lot more cases than what the official data is showing us, but there is still an undercount,” he said. “Everything that we’ve put forward within our research, we still think of that as being conservative.”

According to Edwards, this data indicates that deaths of men by police use of force is more common and reaffirms that structural racism, racialized criminal-legal systems, anti-immigrant mobilizations and racial politics all likely play a role in explaining where police killings are most frequent and who is most likely to be a victim.

“From a public health perspective, developing targeted interventions for sites with particularly high levels of or inequalities in police-involved mortality may serve as a productive framework for reducing them,” Edwards said.

Bigotry in the news: It’s been institutionalized


In our previous post, we outlined the collapse of American community journalism. Now we look at what’s happening to journalism when ownership shifts to those who only interest in the news is as a source of profit.

With the election of Donald Trump, racism has and other forms of intolerance have been given free rein, as evidence by two recent studies which should alarm us all.

First this, from the Guardian:

Terrorist attacks committed by Muslim extremists receive 357% more US press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims, according to new research from the University of Alabama. The researchers controlled for factors like target type, number of fatalities, and whether or not the perpetrators were arrested before reaching their final statistic.

Terrorist attacks committed by non-Muslims (or where the religion was unknown) received an average of 15 headlines, while those committed by Muslim extremists received 105 headlines.

The findings, which are illustrated below, were based on all terrorist attacks in the US between 2006 and 2015 according to the Global Terrorism Database. The disparity in media coverage is particularly out of sync with the reality given that white and rightwing terrorists carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Muslim extremists between 2008 and 2016.

Not all headlines have the same audience, though. Lead researcher [and criminologist — esnl] Erin Kearns explained: “We broke it down by the two different types of sources and we found that the over-coverage is much bigger among national news sources than local papers.”

[Yes, the main source of relatively more balanced coverage is precisely the one that’s most endangered, the subject of our previous post.]

Here’s the essential information in a Guardian graphic:

While crimes involving Muslims are given outsized play in American media, the opposite is true when Muslims are victims of crimes perpetrated by violent bigots. What follows is a shocking story of an attempted mass murder in the heart of the Bible Belt, reported by the Guardian.

White Fright

Program notes:

In 2015, the community of Islamberg discovered that a Tennessee minister was plotting the deadliest attack on US soil since 9/11 against their village. Why have Americans heard nothing about him, and why has the safety of their community been ignored?

On 10 April 2015, the FBI quietly arrested Robert Doggart, a white, 63-year-old Christian minister after they discovered he was plotting an attack against Islamberg, a small African American Muslim community in upstate New York.

Inspired by Fox News claims that the community was a terrorist training camp, Doggart discussed firebombing a mosque and a school in the village, and using assault rifles and a machete to murder the residents. No terrorism charges were brought against Doggart. No national news outlets covered his arrest, and one month after he was taken into custody, a judge released him on bail.

As Doggart’s case went before an all-white jury, White Fright cross-examined the US’s inconsistent system of national security, the media’s role in exacerbating terrorist threats, and the failure to protect vulnerable communities from racist attacks.

Making excuses for white mass murderers

And just as crimes by Muslims are overreported, American newspapers are making excuses for white killers denied to perpetrators who are black.

From Ohio State University:

White mass shooters receive much more sympathetic treatment in the media than black shooters, according to a new study that analyzed coverage of 219 attacks.

Findings showed that white shooters were 95 percent more likely to be described as “mentally ill” than black shooters.

Even when black shooters were described as mentally ill, the coverage was not as forgiving as it was for whites responsible for similar kinds of attacks, said Scott Duxbury, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in sociology at The Ohio State University.

“There’s a big difference in how black and white mass shooters are covered in the media,” Duxbury said.

“Much of the media coverage of white shooters framed them as sympathetic characters who were suffering from extreme life circumstances. But black shooters were usually made to seem dangerous and a menace to society.”

For example, when shooters were framed in the media as mentally ill, 78 percent of white attackers were described as being victims of society – as being under a lot of stress, for example – versus only 17 percent of black shooters.

Duxbury conducted the research with Laura Frizzell and Sadé Lindsay, also sociology doctoral students at Ohio State. Their study appears online in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

The researchers defined mass shootings as those in which four or more victims were shot in a single event, not including the perpetrator.

They used two news data sources to collect 433 media articles or transcripts about 219 randomly selected mass shootings in the United States from 2013 through 2015.

The researchers controlled for a variety of factors that could influence coverage, including the number of victims; whether any victims were women, children, family or romantic partners; whether the perpetrator committed suicide; whether the shooting took place in public; and whether the shooting was framed as gang violence.

After taking these factors into account, findings showed that whites were 95 percent more likely than blacks to be described in coverage as mentally ill. Latinos were 92 percent more likely than blacks to be described as mentally ill in media reports.

Shootings that were murder-suicides had significantly higher odds of being attributed to mental illness, as did those that occurred in public places.

But the number of victims, or whether the victims were women or children, were not related to whether the shooter was labeled as mentally ill.

The researchers identified several themes in articles that framed mass shooters as mentally ill. The most common theme – found in about 46 percent of the articles – was that the shooter was a “victim of society.” This included articles that said the shooter was “going through a lot,” was “stressed out” or “suffered abuse as a child.”

About 28 percent of articles that framed shooters as mentally ill offered testimony to the attacker’s good character, while another 21 percent said the shooting was unexpected or out of character. Another 14 percent said the shooter came from a good environment.

But these descriptions were almost always about white shooters, Duxbury said.

“Black shooters who were described as mentally ill never receive testament to their good character and the media never describe the shootings as out of character,” he said.

“And only white shooters were ever talked about as coming from a good environment.”

The researchers contrasted the coverage of two mass shooters – Josh Boren, a white man, and David Ray Conley, a black man.

“The comparison between Conley and Boren is striking. Both shooters were adult men who murdered their families. Both had a history of domestic violence and drug abuse and both had received treatment for mental illness. However, whereas the media described Josh Boren as a quiet, gentle man – a teddy bear – coverage of Conley described him as perpetually violent, controlling and dangerous,” the researchers said.

The researchers also analyzed shootings that were described as gang affiliated, because these attacks almost always involved minority shooters. Here the most consistent themes in coverage involved the criminal history of the perpetrators, their status as a public menace and the problems of the community.

These results provide a marked contrast with coverage of other mass shootings, Duxbury said.

“When the media frame a mass shooting as stemming from gang violence, they talk about the perpetrators as being perpetually violent and a menace to society,” he said.

“But when a shooting is attributed to mental illness, the media treat it as an isolated incident, or the result of the pressures on the perpetrator.”

Newspaper ownership impacts international coverage

Finally, another form of bias plays a major role in shaping how events are portrayed.

In this case, the focus of the study is international,

From “Media Ownership and News Coverage of International Conflict” by Matthew Baum of the Harvard Kennedy School and Yuri Zhukov of the University of Michigan, published earlier this year in the journal Political Communication:

[M]edia ownership drives the amount, depth and diversity of publicly-available information about international conflict. Media ownership has consolidated significantly in recent decades. In 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of the US media market. By 2012, that number had fallen to 6 companies. A similar trend prevails globally. In Australia, two companies dominate the newspaper industry, while a single company controls nearly 45% of regional radio stations. In Spain, circa 2009, five companies control more than two thirds of newspaper. In the United Kingdom, also circa 2009, three companies account for over 70% of paid newspaper circulation, and two companies control 98% of radio consumption. Four companies account for 77% of all minutes of news consumed in the UK.

Media ownership matters because parent companies exert a homogenizing effect on the coverage of their media holdings, which can leave citizens with less frequent, less policy-oriented , and less diverse information to monitor or influence their leaders’ activities, including in foreign policy. We investigate the impact of ownership on news reporting, using new article-level data on international media coverage of the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the 2001 US-led operations in Afghanistan, and the 1999 NATO-led intervention in Kosovo. . .

We find that ownership structure profoundly affects the volume and content of news coverage. Newspapers owned by the same parent company feature news of similar scope, focus and diversity. They are more likely to publish articles on foreign crises if other newspapers within the same ownership chain have recently done so; more likely to emphasize hard news issues of military operations and policymaking if their co-owned counterparts have done so; and more likely to feature topically diverse content if others in their chain have done so. However, market forces can mitigate these homogenizing ownership effects: as diverse, hard news content grows more prevalent within a newspaper’s media market, the influence of co-owned newspapers recedes. The relative strength of ownership and market effects depends on the nature of the political regime within which a newspaper operates: market pressures drive coverage to a greater extent in states with a free press, while co-ownership matters more in states lacking press freedom.

The decline and fall of American journalism


Community newspapers across the U.S. are dying, slain by a combination of greed, changing public media habits, and indifference.

We begin with a story from Monday’s BBC News:

The New York Daily News, one of the city’s two tabloid papers, is halving its editorial staff, the latest sign of trouble in the local news business. The cuts will leave the newsroom with about 40 people, according to former employees.

They come less than a year after the paper was bought by Tronc, which has a reputation for low newsroom investment.

The New York Daily News started in 1919 and has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, one of them last year.

Tronc faced backlash from staff at the Los Angeles Times, who formed a union and cast a spotlight on the cuts at Tronc-owned publications, despite high compensation going to top executives and other insiders.

Tronc is paying Merrick Ventures, a private equity firm led by Tronc’s biggest shareholder, $5m (£3.8m) a year for “management expertise and technical services”. The newspaper company, which also owns the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, subsequently sold the Los Angeles Times.

And it’s not just the Big Apple tabloid’s newsroom on the chopping block. Heads are rolling  today at the chain’s other papers,across the country, as reported by CNNMoney:

The newspaper publisher is laying off staffers at some of its other papers “today and tomorrow,” according to a Monday afternoon memo from Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn.

The announcement immediately spooked staffers at papers like The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune.

Dearborn said the cuts will not be as severe as in New York.

“The Daily News is unique in that local leadership determined a complete redesign of its structure was needed post-acquisition,” he wrote. “We do not expect reductions of this scale in any of our other newsrooms.”

“With that said, several newsrooms and business units are implementing much smaller reductions today and tomorrow to reduce expenses and contain costs,” he wrote.

But it’s not the gutting of papers that should concern a citizen in a deomiocrayc; it’s also the closing of papers by the giant chains that now control most of the nation’s community journalism.

From PBS’s Independent Lens:

In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

There are also major news organizations not owned by the “big five.” The New York Times is owned by the publicly-held New York Times Corporation, The Washington Post is owned by the publicly-held Washington Post Company and The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times are both owned by the Tribune Company. Hearst Publications owns 12 newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as magazines, television stations and cable and interactive media.

But even those publications are subject to the conglomerate machine, and many see the “corporatizing” of media as an alarming trend. Ben Bagdikian, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of The New Media Monopoly, describes the five media giants as a “cartel” that wields enough influence to change U.S. politics and define social values.

Newspocalypse Now! in three easy graphics. . .

Three images capture the sad story of the decline and fall of community journalism.

First up is a graph by Clinton Mullins, a Twitter exec who formerly held a senior position at old school media legend Conde Nast, showing the steady decline in American newspapers:

Next, from a January Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the state of journalistic employment across all platforms:

And from the Pew Research Center, a global look at the percentages of folks who believe their media are doing very/somewhat well at reporting the news:

One could argue that new media journalists are filling some of the decline seen in print newsrooms, but we would argue that in one very critical respect they are not.

Once newspapers were mostly locally owned, and their journalists and their publishers live in the communities they served.

And most significantly , community newspapers served as platforms for democracy, since providing information for a broad range of the public reflecting wide diversity of activities and opinion and thus constituting m modern version of the ancient Greek agora, the marketplace where both business and democracy took place.

And that’s why the changing nature of media ownership is of such vital importance,

The worst of the  predators stake out their prey

There’s an increasing probability that if you’re reading a U.S. newspaper. It’s owned by that most rapacious of predators, an investment bank. One such outfit, New Media Investment Group, was created as a shell to control the assets of Gatehouse media, with 144 daily newspapers and 333 weekly newspapers in 27 states, with the New Media itself being, according to its website, “externally managed and advised by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm.” Fortress, in turn, owns everything from casinos and retirement homes to other investment firms, a mortgage company, and a railroad.

From The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts, a two-year study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media:

Much attention has been focused in recent years on the country’s largest and most revered national newspapers as they struggle to adapt to the digital age. This report focuses, instead, on the thousands of other papers in this country that cover the news of its small towns, city neighborhoods, booming suburbs and large metropolitan areas. The journalists on these papers often toil without recognition outside their own communities. But the stories their papers publish can have an outsized impact on the decisions made by residents in those communities, and, ultimately, on the quality of their lives. By some estimates, community newspapers provide as much as 85 percent of “the news that feeds democracy” at the state and local levels.

This means the fates of newspapers and communities are inherently linked. If one fails, the other suffers. Therefore, it matters who owns the local newspaper because the decisions owners make affect the health and vitality of the community

>snip<

Over the past decade, a new media baron has emerged in the United States. Private equity funds, hedge funds and other newly formed investment partnerships have swooped in to buy — and actively manage — newspapers all over the country. These new owners are very different from the newspaper publishers that preceded them. For the most part they lack journalism experience or the sense of civic mission traditionally embraced by publishers and editors. Newspapers represent only a fraction of their vast business portfolios — ranging from golf courses to subprime lenders — worth hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. Their mission is to make money for their investors, so they operate with a short-term, earnings-first focus and are prepared to get rid of any holdings — including newspapers — that fail to produce what they judge to be an adequate profit.

Here in California, Alden Global Capital — another vulture — owns the great majority of Golden State newspapers [38], accounting for an equally large majority of the readership.

Alden runs them through a shell, Digital First Media, which in turn has no less that three other shells to run their California papers. And Digital First President Joe Fuchs has his priorities, as he told a recent press conference: “Alden or any of their peers, doesn’t get involved in something to lose money.”

Alden’s capture of the California Fourth Estate and the ensuing ruthless and repeated downsizings play a leading role in the decline of California print employment reflected in this stunning graphic from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:

Alden and its principal are so vicious in their attacks on the newsrooms that a 26 March Bloomberg News report on the company carried this headline:

Imagine If Gordon Gekko Bought News Empires

The reality is even worse: This raider sinks decimated newsrooms’ revenue into bad investments.

In an 17 October 2016 report, the Poynter Foundation charted the ownership types of the top 25 newspaper companies. Those gray malignancies dramatically illustrate the metastatic grasp of investment banks in the dramatically downsized dead-tree trade where we spent the most fulfilling years of our life:

The accompanying text reveals one of many things that happens when the hedge-funders seize control:

Because they own so many newspapers, they can absorb the loss if an individual newspaper fails. If investment firms cannot sell an underperforming newspaper, they close it, leaving communities without a newspaper or any other reliable source of local news and information.

As newspapers die, large areas of the country are transformed into news deserts, counties with few or no paid reporters covering the local communities in black and white.

From Columbia Journalism Review, a look at the news deserts in the contiguous 48 states, with the palest areas representing counties with no remaining papers:

One map reminded us of another, this county-by-county reflection [Wikipedia] of the relative proportion of the winning votes for Hillary Clinton [blue] and Donald Trump [red]. The reason for the blue in the news deserts of Atizona and New Mexico is accounted for by the presence of tribal reservations:

More from an 8 April Politico report:

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn’t do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.

POLITICO’s findings — which put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context — were drawn from a comparison of election results and subscription information from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The findings cover more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level.

The results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012. Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.

That gives new force to the widely voiced concerns of news-industry professionals and academicians about Trump’s ability to make bold assertions about crime rates, unemployment and other verifiable facts without any independent checks. Those concerns, which initially were raised during the campaign, were largely based on anecdotes and observations. POLITICO’s analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims.

The White House declined to comment for this story, but Trump and his campaign officials have made no secret of their preference for partisan national outlets and social media to mainstream outlets of all types.

Newspaper closings lead to higher taxes

Close of local newspapers carries another cost for the impacted communities.

From “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” by three finance professors, Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame, and Chang Lee and Dermot Murphy of the University of Illinois at Chicago:

Newspapers play an important monitoring role for local governments. Other papers have shown that the loss of a local newspaper leads to worsened political outcomes in the region, and we illustrate that there are worsened financial outcomes as well. In particular, we show that long-run municipal borrowing costs increase by as much as 11 basis points following a newspaper closure, and we utilize several identification tests to show that these results are not being driven by underlying economic conditions in the region. We also show that government efficiency outcomes are substantially affected by newspaper closures. In particular, we find that government wage rates, government employees per capita, tax dollars per capita, and the likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated sales all increase following a newspaper closure. From a finance perspective, our results suggest that local newspapers are important for the health of local capital markets.

For counties that have experienced local newspaper closures, we do not expect these newspapers to return, nor do we think that they should, per se. Online news outlets are fundamentally changing the way that people consume news, and they are very likely to remain the dominant source for news consumption. However, these paradigm-shifting news outlets do not necessarily provide a good substitute for high-quality, locally-sourced, investigative journalism. In the long-run, perhaps an equilibrium will be reached in which these online-based organizations contract out work to local reporters and tailor their news to the local areas. In 2009, former Baltimore Sun reporter and famous television producer David Simon stated the following: “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore Zoning Board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium.” We concur, and our evidence suggests that economic growth at the county level will be better off in that equilibrium.

Just how much a paper’s closure costs local taxpayers whe n their government seeks bond funding is summed up in a graphic from co-author Murphy:

BLOG News bonds

The Trumpster delivers a coup de grâce

And now the biggest beneficiary of the decline of community journalism is dealing Ameirca’s newspapers another deadly blow, forcing papers to cut back even more, writes veteran press-watcher Ken Doctor noted in a March report for the Nieman Lab:

Now the battle is heating up on Capitol Hill over tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on Canadian groundwood paper earlier this year.

The tariffs increase the cost of newsprint by as much as 30 to 35 percent, though the impact on publishers is highly uneven, with some chains in better shape and the dwindling independents most at risk. The predictable impacts already in motion: more newsroom layoffs, thinner (and reshaped) print products, fewer Sunday preprints, and an overall further diminishing of the value proposition newspapers are offering their readers.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will reduce its printing days from seven to five next month. The Nevada Appeal in Carson City, Nevada, moves from seven to just two days, while its parent cuts frequency on three adjacent papers.

Within the industry, there’s talk of “dropping Mondays” and replacing print editions with e-editions on other days as well. It looks as if newsprint tariffs will force more publishers to take the path Advance Publications first took six years ago, swapping daily print for digital.

And so it goes. . .

We started in print journalism doing volunteer reporting for a Colorado mountain daily, beginning with a byline and photo on the front page banner story of the 9 November 1964 San Luis Valley Courier, heading next to Arizona for a $50-a-week gig in Arizona at the weekly Winslow Mail, moving next to Nevada and hitch as crime, civil rights, poverty, and radical politics reporter [the last three beats by our own devising and the first such beat assignments in the history of Silver State journalism] on the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal — then as now the state’s dominant newspaper.

Our next job was back in Arizona, where we’d spent 30 days covering schools and general for the Tucson Daily American, a newspaper with the temerity to close before we got our second paycheck.

After starting our journalism addiction at 7600 feet above sea level, our first California gig put us om the Pacific Coast, two blocks from the beach at the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. The town’s main industry was the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, where Vietnam War-bound jarheads got their field training before they headed out to combat.

The next newspaper gig was in another coastal town at the superb family owned Santa Monica Evening Outlook, the finest job we ever held. Then it was on to the Sacramento Bee, the dominant and then only newspaper covering the capital city of the nation’s most populous state.

Our final newspaper job was at the Berkeley Daily Planet, the California city that gave rise to the legendary Free Speech Movement.

Of those newspapers, the Winslow Mail, Tucson Daily American, Oceanside Blade-Tribune, Santa Monica Evening Outlook, and the Berkeley Daily Planet were owned by families or individuals and have folded, vanishing from front porches and newsstands, their communities left without local news produced by committed journalists who, despite by their own inevitable personal biases, work hard to fairly and accurately report differing views.

Each of the communities they once served has become a news desert.

Headlines of the day: The worm has turned at Fox


Yep. ol’ Loofah Man man is gone.

The two lead stories on the New York Times as we write, starting with this:

O’Reilly Out at Fox News as Harassment Claims Pile Up

  • Bill O’Reilly’s ouster brings an abrupt, embarrassing end to his two-decade reign as one of the most popular and influential commentators in television.
  • Advertisers fled his show and public protests flared after a Times investigation revealed payouts of $13 million to resolve claims against him of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.

And the second: