Local Media Left Behind
Media consolidation has exacerbated the information gap across race and class lines. For some, it has produced an immense bounty. Those who can afford it can purchase access to a wide range of news sources tailored to their political tastes, from cable television networks to Internet sites to periodicals. Independent media sources that appeal to left-leaning, middle-class consumers have been carried along by their readers' swelling bank accounts. Likewise for the corporate-owned news sources like The New Yorker that target "independent" market niches.
But media consolidation has doomed the community news sources most consumed by low-income audiences. Local newspapers, radio and TV are left behind as middle-class readers choose other media and advertisers follow. Shrinking ad sales over recent decades have prompted many local news organizations and ethnic media to shut their statehouse bureaus, and many others to close their doors altogether. Media consolidation is just one way that globalization bites local and community-based media, though. Giant chains like Wal-Mart are less likely to place ads in community media than were their locally owned predecessors.
National media are increasingly catering to the highly mobile, globalized, mostly white middle class. A quick glance at the table of contents of news sources that reach middle-class readers will find that foreign policy items like the war in Iraq take priority over domestic conflicts like the war on drugs. Middle-class media focus on the prices of for-sale housing, not the shortage of affordable rental housing, which is increasing homelessness. Local news is totally ignored. No national media repeated the Times-Picayune's warnings about New Orleans's levees, or covered coal miners before the West Virginia disaster, or had undocumented workers on their front pages before the recent marches.
The trend is toward a two-tiered media market. News sources that serve middle-class liberals mainly provide access by paid subscription. Even mainstream media increasingly refer their audiences to their websites and cable networks. Christian networks that mix proselytizing with conservative politics, meanwhile, reach their audience over free TV, toll-free telephone lines and free subscriptions to their magazines.
Today's media universe allows those who can't afford access to slip into a separate and unequal world of second-class information. The poor are watching their media options shrink--both in terms of the number of local sources available to them and in the narrowing content of those national sources that still try to reach them. Calls for media democracy should demand socioeconomic diversity in staff, content and audience among the major sources, as well as a diverse array of news sources at the local level. Access must be guaranteed through universal Internet connectivity and taxpayer subsidies for community-based media through grassroots versions of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We must amplify the voices of the voiceless, both as subjects and as authors.