The demand for local news has never been greater, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) acknowledged to publishers at the start of a June 4 Zoom call organized by the Vermont Press Association. "But the market model — in order to fund it — has never been weaker. It's just an unbelievable contradiction."
With that simple observation, Welch described the current reality of almost every one of the state's newspapers, from the Bennington Banner to the Caledonian Record, from Seven Days to the Valley News.
One by one, the worried-looking individuals on the screen expressed gratitude for the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans that have sustained their local media operations for the last two months. Without the PPP, a number of Vermont publishers said they'd already be out of business.
They also claimed to be producing some of their best work.
Welch seemed to be asking: What else would be helpful?
There were some good suggestions, such as making donations to private media entities tax-deductible and subjecting social media companies to the same liability laws as newspapers. Then Randy Capitani, publisher of the Deerfield Valley News, got personal. Referencing Welch's reelection campaign, he suggested the congressman "send some ad dollars our way." Capitani pointed out that, for 30 years, Welch's media buyers and strategists had never shown a shred of interest in supporting his paper with advertising.
Welch, caught off guard, quickly recovered with: "Well, we've gotta correct that. I call this a pretty good sales pitch. I get it."
Candidates for elected office in Vermont and around the country routinely advertise their campaigns on Facebook and Google, sending money to Silicon Valley rather than to the local media outlets that write about them day in and day out, responsibly informing the citizenry so voters understand the choices before them.
These digital ad platforms never write or broadcast a word of journalism, nor do they cultivate or invest in Vermont communities. Exempt from the libel laws that regulate traditional publishers, they have become conduits for misinformation, discredited sources, nefarious actors and conspiracy theories.
Facebook, in particular, has come under fire for the way it spreads content that stokes anger, fear and resentment. In fact, company researchers created a presentation in 2018 that reported: "Our algorithms exploit the human brain's attraction to divisiveness ... If left unchecked," it read, the site would show users "more and more divisive content in an effort to gain more user attention & increase time on the platform."
Facebook has done little to address this problem. We only know about it because the Wall Street Journal reported on it in a May 26 article titled "Facebook Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive."
As Welch pointed out on the VPA call, this trend is a "rage machine" that is undermining American democracy. Case in point: A recent episode of NPR's "On the Media" describes how a rumor about a fictional bus full of antifa activists started in a Facebook group and eventually turned a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally into a hostile standoff in gun-loving Klamath Falls, Ore.
Vermont media outlets are scrambling to keep the real, fact-checked news coming. As their PPP loans run out, here are some ways you can help:
• Running for office? Restrict your campaign advertising to trusted local sources that cover, cultivate and invest in our communities. Use social media sites to share your message, but do not support them financially. Surveys show that people who read local newspapers and their websites are more likely to vote. Even in the middle of a pandemic, there's still time to get in front of those folks before the August primaries.
• Businesses, invest in your communities by advertising locally. Your customers will notice and thank you for it.
• Vermonters, support your local media outlet by subscribing and donating, and make a conscious effort to patronize the businesses that advertise in it. If you like what Seven Days is doing, help pay for it by becoming a Super Reader. Your contributions are now generating more than $1,500 a week toward the creation of this newspaper, which is painstakingly reported, edited, designed, proofread and delivered to a Seven Days rack near you. We hope you're finding it informative, uplifting and essential.