by Rich Weiss and R. T. Andrews
The proliferation of fake news in concept and fact has eroded the most important asset any media outlet has: its readers’ trust.
In February, 2020, along with warning of the impending COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) pandemic, the World Health Organization warned: “The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ — an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Now, more than ever, informed and engaged communities are essential for a healthy democracy. Not just for conservatives, or liberals, or independents, but across the board.
A Pew Research study conducted from 2016 to 2017 found “Americans express only a moderate trust in most news source types.” That same study revealed an increase in the number of respondents who trust information from their own local news organization. This increase outpaced trust of information from sources of national news, friends, and family.
What do we see in local media that engenders our trust? We see our faces and the faces of our community members. We see news and events happening in our own communities. We see marketing and advertising from our own mom-and-pop shops. We see our own interests.
But in Cleveland, our local media ecosystem is in need just as research is beginning to show the degree to which our local media ecosystem is needed by our community. Within this local media ecosystem, we have varying degrees of difficulty producing uniquely local content, upgrading equipment and technology, keeping up with current media trends, and hiring staff. Community media deserts stretch across vast areas of our town that have languished for decades without their own voice, leaving clusters of communities underserved and underreported.
Can we afford to turn a blind eye as our trusted neighborhood and community media outlets age and shutter? Should we cede the information of our local communities to the continued growth of big tech, social media, and cable news? How do we justify neglecting our local media outlets just when studies show their ability to grow the very thing slipping through the fingers of less localized media: reader trust?
Why do media outlets come around in the first place? The Cleveland Gazette and Commercial Register was Cleveland’s first newspaper, but it had the same reason for coming into existence as all media outlets: we need them. We need them because our neighborhoods become safer when neighbors know more about each other. We need them because we seek the collective identity a local media outlet develops. We need them in order to learn about new organizations doing work for, or services being offered by, our communities. We need them because our communities rely on our local media to bring us together in good times and bad.
The further away the source of our community’s information, the less responsive that source is to our community’s needs.
Do we want a society that slouches into a dependence on information from the most virtual, the most fleeting, the most distant, the most faceless sources? Where our connection to our source of information is as distant as we are to the nearest orbiting satellite? What does that imaginary neighborhood look like? Close your eyes—really picture it for just a moment.
With no local media remaining, do you see non-local media outlets serving the interests of communities, or do you see communities serving the interests of non-local media outlets? In this future, do small mom-and-pop businesses open and thrive, or are there big-box mega-stores as far as the eye can see? When one community member is wronged, does she or he have a voice, or is that community member resigned to accept the circumstance? Do the rest of us rally to his or her defense, or do we pull our window shades and hope never to meet the same fate ourselves?
Can we picture another future?
Might this combined COVID-19 pandemic/infodemic, and the fear and confusion that is accompanying the loss of friends and family, force us to rededicate ourselves to a healthy local media ecosphere on which we depend?
Could 2020, the Year of Our Quarantine, be the year we stopped rolling our eyes about local media and started rolling up our sleeves instead?
Outbreaks of this deadly virus in the smallest of communities means inevitable viral outbreaks for us all. Should we likewise acknowledge that communities lacking trusted information — by and for their own community — make for a less healthy democracy for us all?
We believe so.
We call on all citizens to support efforts like our Neighborhood & Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland and Neighborhood Media Foundation to strengthen existing community media serving Cleveland’s neighborhoods; to foster new media outlets in underserved neighborhoods; to find funding and expertise to overcome fledgling community media obstacles; and together, to build networks of assistance and collaboration between a constellation of independent media outlets throughout Northeast Ohio, representing the many voices of our richly diverse Cleveland communities.
We are proud to be publishers of local media in Cleveland. We are proud to work collaboratively with 14 associated Cleveland-area media outlets to deliver higher quality information to our panorama of diverse, unique, independent Cleveland communities. Our media outlets have fought for the interests of your communities for years. In the grips of this pandemic/infodemic and its impact on every aspect of life, we ask you to fight for your own local, neighborhood, or community information source in some very specific ways: subscribe, like and follow us on social media, and share us widely with your networks. Advertise with us; encourage the merchants with whom you do business to do likewise.
When you take these actions, you are fighting for a place for your own interests, your own perspective, and your own voice. You are being active agents in the salvation of your own communities.
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Rich Weiss is Publisher of The Tremonster, and Vice President of Neighborhood & Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland. He is Executive Director of Neighborhood Media Foundation, a nonprofit that supports media produced by and for Cleveland neighborhoods and the people who love them. In 2011, Weiss and his wife (CSU First-Year Writing Instructor) Amanda Lloyd, began publishing and editing their flagship neighborhood newspaper, The Tremonster, by and for their own neighborhood of Tremont. Weiss developed an interest in community media as an advertising salesperson and writer for Cleveland-area newspapers The Call & Post, The Plain Press, and The Collinwood Observer. Weiss is a member of the Holmden-Bhurer-Rowley block club and has previously served as a trustee on the boards of the Ingenuity Festival and Tremont West Development Corporation.
R. T. Andrews is Editor & Publisher of The Real Deal Press and President of the Neighborhood & Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland. The Real Deal, born in 1991 as a scrappy and creative full-color monthly tabloid, has also appeared over the years as a digital weekly, a blog, and beginning next month, as a full-fledged digital news site. Its focus is covering the intersection of race, class and power in the civic, commercial and cultural spaces of NE Ohio. No matter its format, it has consistently been “the place where you can read what you can’t read elsewhere”.