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BARTH KECK

Facebook is a dubious guide to worthy journalism, but the popular social-media platform is decidedly influential in steering news consumers to specific stories, accounting for 29% of all referrals.

So when Republican pundits and right-wing media principals complain that “major tech companies and social-media platforms are censoring conservatives,” people take notice.

Is there really suppression of conservative voices? A study of 395 politically oriented Facebook pages between July 2018 and March 2019 found otherwise.

“[N]ot only did left-leaning and right-leaning pages still have roughly the same engagement numbers,” reports the self-described “progressive” research site Media Matters, “but — between January 14 and March 17, the weeks leading up to this new wave of conservative censorship claims — right-leaning pages on average actually received more interactions than left-leaning pages.”

Whom to believe? Here’s where I defer to legendary Massachusetts politician and former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill who, even if he didn’t coin it, certainly gained fame from the phrase, “All politics is local.” In other words, if you can’t trust the national news media, go local.

Last week, I highlighted the influence that Google and Facebook have over local newspapers. This week, I recognize a growing force in local news: online-only news entities.

The importance of local news is undeniable; the importance of local news created exclusively by local journalists is indispensable.

Says the Columbia Journalism Review, “there is a need not just for news but for newsrooms. Something is gained when reporting, analysis, and investigation are pursued collaboratively by stable organizations that can facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics, and legal services, and present their work to a large public. Institutional authority or weight often guarantees that the work of newsrooms won’t easily be ignored.”

As local newspapers continue to dwindle and so-called “news deserts” — areas lacking news coverage — continue to grow, the work of high-quality, locally owned, online-only news sources has become vital.

The first “online” news source was created when CompuServe teamed up with The Columbus Dispatch in 1979 and sent text-only news stories to customers on their Apple II or Radio Shack TRS-80 desktop computers. The experimental service ended in 1982, but the groundwork was set.

The new century saw the internet gain popularity and cut severely into newspaper advertising revenues. The internet mostly killed off newspaper classified advertising sections — which had been a cash cow for many years — and, generally speaking, eliminated the concept of “scarcity” in advertising, driving down the price of ads across the industry.

Consequently, the newspaper industry began shedding reporters and editors. Almost 20% of all newspaper journalism jobs in 2001 were gone by 2009. Three years later, the daily Times Picayune of New Orleans became a symbol of the industry, laying off 200 staffers and cutting its daily print newspaper to three days a week.

Ironically, that miserable scenario opened the door for an award-winning, online-only news outlet called The Lens, “a scrappy nonprofit start-up for investigative journalism,” staffed by several former Picayune reporters.

The Lens is a member of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, an educational nonprofit association with a goal of fostering “the viability and excellence of locally focused independent online news organizations.” Recently, the Knight Foundation awarded LION a $1-million grant to help the organization “expand its staff with experts to train its nearly 250 members on core issues to sustain local publishing.”

“Local news is the key to strong communities and a healthy democracy,” said Kelly Gilfillan, chair of LION’s board of directors. “This generous grant will not only benefit and guide our current members, but we’ll be able to encourage journalists and entrepreneurs to start new newsrooms in cities and towns across the country where local coverage has been slashed.”

Such communities are plentiful in Connecticut, where we have 169 separate municipal governments that all need the scrutiny of professionally operated news organizations. Perhaps you’ve noticed how local newspapers aren’t as thick as they used to be?

In their place, a handful of quality online news websites — several of which are LION members — have been providing coverage and connecting with local residents, including: NewHavenIndependent.org, LymeLine.com (covering Lyme and Old Lyme), ValleyNewsNow.com (Chester, Deep River, Essex, Old Saybrook), NewCanaanite.com, NancyOnNorwalk.com, We-Ha.com (West Hartford), the ValleyIndependentSentinel.org (Naugatuck Valley), GoodMorningWilton.com, CTLatinoNews.com, the CTMirror.org, and, of course, CTNewsJunkie.com. These web-based news organizations, and numerous others like them in Connecticut and around the country, have begun to fill a void left by waning newspapers.

In short, local reporters who produce original, authentic news stories still exist and are making a comeback in many markets. You just have to go online — and you must go beyond Facebook — to find them.

Full disclosure: Doug Hardy, co-owner and business manager for CTNewsJunkie, is a member of LION’s board of directors.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.