Sunday, January 08, 2023

Why we don't see the news

Say you live in a neighborhood with older, educated people. The kind of people who make up the majority of print newspaper subscribers. Would you be afraid if you saw the newspaper deliveryman in the early morning? Would you recognize him?

During the same period of time we have seen the evaporation of local news, and along with it the actual printing and delivery of newspapers, we have also seen the increase of fear of another kind of traveler through our neighborhoods. Porch pirates follow delivery drivers from Amazon and other online platforms (but let's be honest, it really is just Amazon). They quickly rush our porches, snatching up packages before we have a chance to retrieve them.

The phenomenon of online deliveries are a normal staple in our lives. There is an entire market of doorbell cameras and other accessories to protect or hide your deliveries. Videos from doorbell cameras are a consistent part of our media diet.

Online deliveries seem to have come out of the chaos of the early days of the pandemic, when we wondered out loud in mid-March 2020 if the police would use checkpoints to stop us from going to work.

Every option we had for going out into public suddenly had a separate option for no-touch delivery associated to it. Obviously, if you could afford it. All at once, between March and June 2020, blue trucks cruising our neighborhoods became normal. Along with the fear that those packages would be snatched off of our doorsteps before we were able to retrieve them. The package thief became the pilot fish of the basking shark of our home delivery economy.

Paired with the threat of catalytic converter thieves (the stronger, more violent, metallic cousins of porch pirates, crawling underneath cars, quickly cutting the valuable underbelly before skittering off into the night) we became newly aware of what was happening just outside our houses.

There became a sort of standard format to a post on or your neighborhood Facebook group. A homeowner would take a quick picture of someone walking through the neighborhood, wondering who this hooded person was. And if no one knew, and no one would ever seem to know who the blurry hooded person walking away from the photographer was, it was evidence that only increased suspicious was needed.

This is the context where anyone could mistake a newspaper delivery for a crime being committed.

When there were more newspapers being delivered, maybe a newspaper on the porch of near every house, the action of delivering newspapers was more recognizable. Subscribers decline, the newspaper owners cut days off printing, news coverage becomes patchy, you don’t recognize what you’re seeing at 2 a.m.

As news has declined, the news was still being delivered to some of our homes. It seems to make sense that this was more often in older and wealthier neighborhoods, where people still had a habit of paying to have the daily news printed out on paper and delivered in person.

After afternoon papers died decades ago, printing consolidated into fewer and fewer printing presses, paper delivery workers shifted from our own neighbors (thinking about the newspaper delivery boy, shakily steering their bike with a heavy sack of papers, tossing each one while also trying to stay upright) to wageworkers.

They are in their own cars, packed with maybe three or five different editions. Papers even stopped employing their own routes and used subcontractors employed by several companies. Printing presses used to be running four hours a day, printing out one or two editions for one newspaper’s flag. Now newspapers consolidate printing. They use a regional facility around the clock, printing several newspapers at different times of day, changing delivery to a professional, regional task.

Even paper companies are moving away from newsprint production to make cardboard boxes. Our porches see more boxes than newsprint.

And, newspaper delivery workers don’t work the dawn hours anymore, delivering as the sun was coming up. They work earlier in the dark night. Consolidation and longer routes, forced them to stretch out their days.

This was the nature of the world where Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer decided to leave his home after midnight in January to trail after a car visiting his neighborhood.

We like to talk about how newspapers are an important corner of our democracy and that in a lot of ways, they represent our civic life, our republic. Said President Thomas Jefferson: “...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Sedrick Altheimer was delivering the guardian of the republic when the Pierce County Sheriff confronted him in fear that he was a thief. Altheimer tried to explain more than once that he was just delivering newspapers when Troyer told a publically-employed 911 operator that Altheimer had threatened his life, brought down the entirety of Pierce County law enforcement onto the situation. And then, Troyer apparently changed his story.

For me, it was the height of irony that Troyer spent decades professionally speaking to the press that filled the pages that were once so much more commonly landing on the doorsteps of his neighbors. He was the spokesperson for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, and other than maybe the Sheriff himself, was the most well-known sheriff employee in Pierce County. But let's be honest, he was the most well known sheriff employee because he was in the news.

And, this is the irony. When it came time to talk about the night with Altheimer, Troyer would eschew the local newspaper and public radio station and go instead to Seattle-based opinion radio to get his side of the story told. He didn’t need to go to the mainstream news anymore, because opinion-based content is beating it to our eyeballs.

We know what grabs our attention. In fact, we know what makes us read and what advertisers are able to leverage to get us to watch their ads. We know because that is where the smart money is.

The same thing that has happened to newspaper delivery workers has also happened to the news itself. Almost everything we read or see online is built to grab our attention. Alphabet and Meta have built ad networks that have nearly totally destroyed newspapers and other locally based news content producers because they were able to weaponize our attentions towards emotionally engaging content.

So, when what we see is actually sober, well researched, locally produced news, we see it as some other kind of partisan content. We don’t agree with it, so it cannot possibly be true. It drives us back into our more firmly held beliefs.

This isn’t an exact explanation about how this sort of belief reinforcement works. There is actually a way to get people, even hardened partisans, to read and take in what they don’t necessarily believe, but it is hard. But, the bad way happens more often.

It was smarter for Troyer to go to the media platforms that were sharpened on this post-newspaper attention economy. He could easily tell his truth with little challenge, and his fans would be there for him in large numbers because they were conditioned to go to those platforms to see the “real truth” that was finally not being hidden from them anymore.

Emotion-manipulating media platforms sew distrust in the establishment media because sewing distrust is an effective tool to keep their own fans from hearing counter-messaging and from looking under their own hoods and their own logical paths. And, while Tucker Carlson is normally talking about the New York Times or the Washington Post, the same strategy also taints the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News Tribune because (surprise) people don't get nuance. But it is sometimes Jason Rantz talking about the woke reporters at King 5.

The economy of the local news means there is less and less money coming in, which means fewer reporters, a lower quality and quantify product being pushed onto digital platforms, and fewer subscriptions being taken for a print product.

So, when what we see is a newspaper delivery worker, we don't know who the person is and the top cop sees a middle-of-the-night porch pirate.

And, what we see is responsible journalism, we mistake it for partisan, attention content, but just from the other side of the battle we all seem to be engaged in, because what is what we are prone to see anymore.

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