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Local News is in Crisis – Hence our Ethical Sniff Test

local newspaper sniff test and smell test

Our fun, but serious, ethical journalism test to measure how fishy Your local newspaper smells

A Local News version of the movies’ Bechdel Test

This article introduces the need for The See Through News Local News Tests. We’ve developed two:

  • The rapid Sniff Test
  • The more sophisticated Smell Test

Both offer quick and easy ways to evaluate local news journalism.

The Bechdel Test started as a joke in a comic strip, but is now a respected measure of female representation in fiction. Like our tests, it uses simple questions and straightforward categories to deliver a standardised score.  

The Bechdel Test poses three binary questions, which deliver a score from 0-3, revealing  how well represented women are in any work of fiction. Our Local News Test uses a similar methodology to deliver a score of 1-3 (the quick-and-dirty Sniff Test), or 0-10 (the more nuanced Smell Test  version). The score exposes how much ‘proper’ local news your local newspaper/website actually contains.

These results are meaningful in isolation, and in aggregate. When applied to a big enough sample, they may reveal otherwise invisible trends, or unmeasurable values. 

As with the Bechdel test, the process of performing these tests is just as valuable as the results, as it involves critical reading. We all need to learn how to read between the headlines. 

Why Local News needs a sniff test

By bringing the issue of ethics in local journalism to general attention, we hope to be part of a long overdue need to jog the ethical needle of local news away from advertising, and back towards journalism. 

We know Hollywood is commercial, and exists to make money, so we have low expectations of any social benefit.  Enhancing the public good is a welcome side-affect, but the studio managers have their eyes firmly on the bottom line. 

Journalism is different.  We expect it to prioritise truth over money. Journalism is too influential, and too important a part of our society and culture to go unexamined. This is well understood at national news level, in broadcast and print. But the same commercialisation and concentration of power has taken place, out of sight and almost unreported, in local news.

Which is why we’ve designed these Local News Tests to:

a) expose good journalism, i.e. content  that values truth over eyeballs

b) highlight unethical journalism, i.e. advertising posing as news. 

Why Truth Matters

One of the biggest challenges faced by anyone trying to make sense of the world, is resisting tarring all journalism with the same brush. 

Concluding, from limited examples, that ‘They’re all the same’, or ‘You can’t trust any of them’ is the start of a short, steep, slippery slope. We already know what lies at the bottom –  denialism and storming the Capitol. Once you don’t trust anyone, you get to choose your own facts. 

If we choose our own facts, few of us choose inconvenient ones. If we can’t agree on how many hospitals are being built, presidential inauguration crowd size, or vaccine effectiveness, what chance do we have of addressing the most inconvenient facts of all, like atmospheric CO2 levels? 

The more uncomfortable the fact, the less likely we are to face it. None of us need look far from our own personal lives, let alone political opinions, for examples.

The more, and the more passionately, we disagree with each other, the more shareholder value these social media platforms deliver. It makes sense for them to engineer their algorithms to optimise polarisation. Expecting them to self-regulate otherwise is unreasonable, foolish or cynically complicit. Newspapers have always been commercial enterprises, but it seems a truism to observe that the bigger the conglomerate, the more commercial they are. If no one’s claimed it yet, let’s call this the See Through Constant.

Business haggling with Government about regulation =  bread-and-butter politics.  Democracy and accountability are usually the jam promised tomorrow, and rarely the jam delivered today. Different countries have different varieties of jam to make money politics palatable, but all good journalists know what to do when things get whiffy: Follow the Money. 

The pace of growth and borderless nature of the Internet, render national responses to social media platforms flat-footed and puny. Combined with old school divide-and-rule, international conglomerates have found regulation easy to evade. Almost as easy as the social media giants who torched their local news landscape.

The trend towards concentration of media ownership puts increasing pressure on ethical  journalists, and other seekers of objective truth. They’re losing, and when ethical journalists lose, the downstream effect we all suffer is incalculable. 

We’re now discovering what’s sacrificed when big business takes over large numbers of local newspapers. Bean-counters at the private equity and hedge funds that have hoovered up your local paper are constantly weighing up ethical Journalism (Cost) against Advertising (Revenue). We don’t need to guess the outcome. That’s why we need the Local News Test.

Concentration of capital, wealth, power and ownership, is a key component of capitalism’s boom-and-bust cycle. Market forces and the free flow of capital result in greater efficiencies and cheaper goods. Most countries have concluded it’s the least worst system.

But what’s best for widgets is not necessarily best for everything. The knock-on negative consequences of cost-cutting in News may be uniquely damaging.  The dangers of choosing our own facts, and their real-world consequences, have never been more evident.

The Problem:

 Have you, at any point over the past few years :

  • Wondered what happened to your local newspaper?
  • Said things about your local rag like ‘There’s nothing interesting in it any more’, This is unreadable’, or ‘It’s nothing but ads nowadays’?
  • Hankered for a quick way to assess whether it’s worth trawling through a local newspaper or website, or a waste of time?

If so, you understand the need for, and importance of, our Local News Test.  

Your local newspaper is likely to have undergone a radical change over the past few years. 

For generations, in some cases centuries, your local Journal/Enquirer/Gazette/Advertiser etc. would have been independently owned, written by people who lived locally, and financed by newsprint sales and local advertising. 

Today, there’s a slim chance that:

a) your local paper is still independently owned, or 

b) you’re lucky enough to live somewhere covered by one of the brave new operators trying to commit ethical local journalism in the internet age. 

But a), like we say, slim. And b), like we say, lucky. 

The extent of the takeover of local news by private equity groups may be under-reported, but the reasons behind it are familiar.

Since the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien was first published in Strasbourg in 1605, newspapers had two ways of making money; selling dead trees, in the form of newsprint, and selling advertising space on those pages. 

The Internet has obliterated both traditional revenue streams. Paper sales and small ads started heading south the moment the internet headed north. So far a tiny number of titles, boasting a unique offer, have reached the oasis of the mythical Third Source, Online Subscription.  

‘Consumers’ (formerly known as ‘readers’) who still buy, or even pick up free copies of, dead-tree newsprint tend to have grey hair, or none at all. As for classified ads, not even pensioners looking to buy/sell/swap/browse, whether baby seats or houses, rush to their newsagent to rifle through their local weekly’s classified ads any more.

This draining away of the waters that kept local newspapers buoyant for four centuries has left the vast majority of local titles high and dry. 

Apart from the tiny minority who’ve found new oases, a few have found niches with puddles big enough for them to survive. Some have survived longer than others, but the universal economic truth of Internet erosion is relentless. Over the past 20 years or so, local papers have been confronted with the stark choice of a slow death leading to bankruptcy, or a slow death starting with selling out to a big conglomerate.  

Most, understandably, have taken the latter option. Massive conglomerates have hoovered up the vast majority of local titles, often without most of their readers being aware. After all, where would you read a front page splash exposing how your independent local paper has been bought up by a faceless international hedge fund vehicle?  In the local paper they’ve just bought up?

Far from advertising their corporate ownership, they go to great lengths to conceal it. For good reason, corporate conglomerates hide their names and logos right at the bottom of the website, or print them in very small font beside the familiar masthead title. They know it will reduce reader trust. That’s why our two Local News Tests focus on reality, not perception.

Accurate numbers are a moving target, as the conglomerates are buying up local titles, and closing them down, by the day. But it’s the same story, wherever you look.

This stealth accumulation by huge media conglomerates has reached the point where these privately-owned behemoths now own 70-90% of all surviving local newspaper titles, throughout the Anglosphere and beyond. 

The New News Business

Wherever they may operate – Newsquest in the UK, New Media Investment Group in the US, PostMedia in Canada, NewsCorp in Australia, Stuff in New Zealand, OEM in Mexico – these conglomerates follow the same business model:

  • Slash journalist jobs
  • Implement economies of scale
  • Centralise editorial operations
  • Automate ‘content production’ (= ‘writing stories’)

All this makes perfect business sense, but there’s a big problem.

Their primary motivation is no longer journalism, but selling advertising.

These once-cherished local titles are now more like cogs in a corporate clickbait machine than the trusted Champions of the People they aspired to be (and by and large succeeded in being) before they were gobbled up.

They do what they can to keep traffic on their own websites, where they can reap 100% of any directly negotiated revenue. But most of their ‘content’ is shared via social media giants like Facebook and YouTube. They not only control ad revenue, but retain the lion’s share.

If these corporate conglomerates were transparent about the ethical compromises they make to stay in business, it would be another chapter in the same sad post-internet story. Having hollowed out the high street by elbowing aside Mom & Pop stores, supermarkets are now being put out of business themselves by Amazon and E-Bay.  

It’s the same story with newspapers, only the stakes are much higher. 

By pretending to be purveyors of  journalism when they’re actually advertising platforms, these corporate fronts are damaging the reputation of ALL journalism, and journalists. Local newspapers, which built their reputation as local champions over generations, are now  trust fronts for corporate clickbait machines, cynically eroding trust in all media at a time when we’ve never needed ethical journalism more, or found it harder to identify.

We may not have been able to do much to halt the corporatisation of news and the concentration of media ownership, but at least we’re generally aware of it when it comes to our national newspapers, TV channels and radio stations.

The corporate takeover of local newspapers, however, has taken place below the radar, and is desperately under-reported.  After all, where are you going to read about it – in your local newspaper?

So that’s why See Through News came up with our Local News Tests.

Media literacy is a key part of the See Through News goal, and this is one of a series of articles outlines some of the entertaining, but serious, projects See Through News has developed to promote it.