When I want to know a CEO’s biggest long-term concern, I ask: What keeps you up at night? Sometimes, my question is focused on the CEO’s own company or industry. Sometimes, my question is about Hawai‘i or our whole world.
My personal answer to both variants of this question are closely tied: What worries me most about my industry – the news business – has a lot to do with what worries me most about America’s future and our world’s future.
You may be thinking: Does that guy really believe he and the news business are at the center of the universe? No, he doesn’t. But the news business – the factual information business centered on our shared concerns – is at the heart of this democracy and every other democracy on this planet.
Just about every industry and profession has been disrupted in recent years, so don’t be concerned simply because a lot of my friends and former colleagues have lost their jobs. Instead, be concerned about what has been lost along with those tens of thousands of jobs nationwide: factual reporting on politics and government, on businesses and nonprofits, and on other vital public concerns. People need to understand their communities and their nation to be active citizens and informed voters. Ignorance leads to inaction or worse.
Local News Deserts
Factual national reporting from varied sources is still easy for Americans to access, cheaply or for free, because national reporting benefits from a potential market of 327 million people. Nonetheless, there is less national reporting than 20 years ago and a lot less local reporting. Many smaller American communities have become reporting deserts and most surviving local news organizations are much leaner than before, like our local newspapers.
Flooding into these vacuums is a lot of fake news, distributed by social media and other channels. Real news is expensive to create: You have to pay reporters to interview sources and ferret out documents, plus there are editors, photographers, designers and camera operators. Along with money, real news takes time and energy – but I can create a flurry of fake news without talking to a soul or leaving my La-Z-Boy.
Many people believe information on the internet should be free. They won’t pay for news subscriptions or donate to news nonprofits, and they use ad blockers to disable the revenue that can help pay for free news. All of that means there is less money for real news, and that keeps me up at night.
My wife teaches news literacy, among other subjects, at UH Mānoa and she says many of her students can’t tell the difference between credible and untrustworthy news sites. Many of their parents can’t either. That keeps me up at night.
Putin and his cyber grifters may favor one candidate over another in an election, but their long-term goal is to infect our digital town square with anger, cynicism and lies, so that eventually Americans view their democracy as no better than his corrupt Russian dictatorship.
America’s and Hawai‘i’s news media has never been perfect, but we have done important work at every step of our history. Democracy flourishes with debate supported by facts, evidence and other trustworthy information and it withers in their absence. That’s a big reason our crippled democracy has failed to act on climate change, inequality and other crises.
So if those crises are what keep you up at night, maybe you can also think about supporting your local news outlets with an advertising purchase, a subscription or a donation. I will sleep a little better and you might, too.