Saving local media has been the mantra for more than a decade, especially through the double-barrel recessions of the aughts. How do we save local media? Who – or what – will protect it from the secular changes of digital, platforms, mobile and social?
Many would-be saviors rushed in. And, like many digital executives, I was lured into that call. My friends know that I’m drawn to the Superman mythology, and not because of the godlike Kal-El who protects Earth with an S-shaped crest that means Hope. It’s because of Jor-El, who risked everything to save his dying Krypton but ultimately only saved his son.
At E.W. Scripps, I launched a program in 2008 called “56/2012,” a vision that would pay for all journalism in the company (which at the time totaled $56 million) with digital revenues by 2012. We were on track to make that goal until I exited in 2010, and the goal was shelved.
In rebooting the Local Media Consortium from a sunsetting, Yahoo-focused concern in 2010, I led a disbanding board to the idea that local media could occupy a seat at the table with all major platforms if it united – strategically and economically. When I left in March, the LMC represented nearly 80 percent of all U.S. local media and generated hundreds of millions in digital revenue per year.
It wasn’t enough.
After each of these occurrences, I was stuck in a failed Jor-El funk. And I’m not alone.
A number of media industry groups recently crafted an open letter to Google, saying it waan't doing enough to help publishers protect themselves from General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s serious shit if you serve targeted advertising to European audiences, and requires publishers to notify users what data it and its ad platforms collect on users. The industry groups say Google isn’t doing enough; Google says, “They’re your users, so notify them.”
The News Media Alliance has lobbied the U.S. legislature to give media companies “safe harbor” to negotiate with GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) to extract revenues back to local media. I’ve spoken and written against this we-are-weak approach, but acknowledge that the thrust is to save media.
There are countless others trying to ride in as saviors. Technology platforms, audience monetization efforts, local concerns hoping to buy their newspapers away from predatory hedge funds and anyone who says “blockchain.”
They want to protect local media. They want to save it.
I want to say this carefully, but emphatically:
It can’t be done.
I spent the weekend in North Carolina watching my stepson graduate from Davidson College, a small private liberal arts college founded in 1837 by the Presbyterian Church but better known more recently for giving basketball the gift of Steph Curry.
Graduations are composed of the expected and unexpected: The reminder that the word “commencement” means a beginning and not an end; the faculty receptions; the parties that unwisely mix students, parents and a beer keg; the baccalaureate service that draws a third of the graduating class and their dutiful parents.
As the father and stepfather of five children, I have experience with all, and my least favorite is baccalaureate. It’s generally when schools founded by faith organizations remind the graduating class of its religious roots, often with a cudgel. These messages come across to me as too little, too late. The graduating class of Davidson spent more time in the weeks walking up to commencement talking about what would happen at the “Beer Truck” and not its Presbyterian roots.
But the Lord – or Universe, or Spirit, or Love (the Presbyterians are pluralists, after all) – works in mysterious ways. And I found the homily by Davidson College Chaplain Rob Spach resonate not only with the graduating class of 2018, but also delivering needed guidance to the state of local media.
Namely: Will God save me from bad things?
The answer is no.
Using Psalm 23 as a launch point – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want – Rev. Spach took graduates and families through the roots of the Psalm, leading to the question: When 9/11 happened, we heard stories of people who worked in the Twin Towers but were delayed by traffic jams and daycare dropoffs and flat tires, and therefore saved. Do we assume that God protected them? If so, why did he not protect the others?
The answer is haunting but clarifying: “God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything.”
This resonated with me in my quest to protect – and, yes, save – local media. It isn’t a martyr’s quest; it's a solvable puzzle we haven’t cracked. I’ve said it’s our Manhattan Project, but lately I've seen it as our equivalent to cracking the unbreakable cipher, Enigma.
God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything.
Local media does not need to be saved. Our efforts are noble, but saying it that way – saving local media – creates an expectation that there is a magic bullet, a tax on Google and Facebook, a specific level of consolidation, a gizmo.
We do not need salvation. We need to sustain ourselves.
Local media has lost itself. When the editorial page editor of a media chain is fired for expressing his First Amendment rights, there is a cancer in the industry that can’t be healed with the touch of a savior. When media companies force their anchors to read editorials denouncing the basic journalistic practice of afflicting the comfortable, those companies can’t be saved by better play on Apple News. When industry groups look to Capitol Hill to force the GAFA quartet into a green-grocer payoff, we’re not talking about salvation – we’re talking about desperation.
God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything.
I grew up in faith but migrated to altruism, hard work, the idea that love is a physical force and, yes, capitalism. I do not look for salvation. Instead, I seek solutions.
And solutions come from within. From trusting that the changes in our lives require us to bob and weave, to react and create, to accept and defy. It means we are on our own, but there are forces in the universe – again, the pluralism – that want us to succeed, if only we’ll take up the reins.
Rev. Spach pulled the Davidson class back to his original thread by tying in the Lord’s Prayer, which is a merging of two verses, one from Matthew and one from Luke. (The Presbyterians are big on doxology.) And, in so doing, offered that the prayer – and Psalm 23 – presented the same four words for humanity. Or, for local media.
Come dance with me.
We will have ups and downs. Some will be spared, some will not. There will be lava and hurricanes and poverty and turmoil. There will be secular changes and disruptive technologies that pull the foundation out from under your feet. There never will be stability, and you are a fool to ask for it.
Don’t ask the universe to save you from any of it.
Instead, ask the universe – and your industry – if it would like to dance.