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July 04, 2023
What A Day
Live, Laugh, Local News

In This Episode

  • Over the past year, newsrooms across the country have experienced significant staff cuts, even leading to the shuttering of BuzzFeed News and bankruptcy of VICE Media. We’re joined by S. Mitra Kalita, veteran journalist and co-founder of URL Media, to learn more about why these layoffs are happening and its impact on local journalism.

 

Show Notes:

 

 

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TRANSCRIPT

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Wednesday, July 5th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And I’m Priyanka Aribindi. And and this is What A Day. On today’s show, we’re bringing you a conversation about an issue that has been top of mind for us here on What A Day. Just this year, several news outlets across the country have laid off significant amounts of their staff. I’m talking about The Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Insider, NBC News, and ABC News. The list is truly endless. That’s only naming a few. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. And it’s not just the big mainstream outlets that have been laying off, you know, these important players in the newsroom. We’re also seeing this happen in smaller local newsrooms. And that all has an impact on our democracy, on the ability to hold officials accountable and on encouraging civic engagement, things that we as journalists and the folks here at Crooked really, really, really, really care about. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, I mean, it’s been really disheartening to see this decline in local news since, as you mentioned, it’s a vital resource for people across the country just to know what’s going on in their own communities. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. Especially as we get ready for another presidential election. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: We need local communities to, like, be getting the necessary information so that they can make the right decision when they go to the polls for example. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: This has only become more and more important as there have become less and less resources, it seems, for these journalists to do their job. So– 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s really a huge problem. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. And so I wanted to learn more about the nature of these layoffs and where local news is headed. So I spoke with S. Mitra Kalita. She’s a veteran journalist and newsroom manager, one of my former newsroom managers. She’s also– 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Wow! 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: –co-founder and CEO of URL Media, a multi-platform network of Black and Brown community news outlets that share content and revenue. So she knows a thing or two about the media industry. I started by asking her why newsrooms across the country have been cutting their staff. 

 

  1. Mitra Kalita: 2023 has been a pretty awful year for media companies. The first quarter of this year, you have a number of events. You have a lot of those benefits dried up. Right. So COVID funding dried up, Federal SNAP benefits March 1st, the extension of those dry up. And so for those of you who live in neighborhoods where you can judge how well we’re doing by your food lines, I’ll tell you, here in Queens, the food lines are once again just as they were immediately after the pandemic, running many times around the block. Right. So those are some economic indicators that just give you a sense of the pain. I just right away start to see this behavior of we got to cancel this advertising contract. Um. You know, if you’re a freelancer, maybe you had a deal before and they’re calling you and saying, listen, we can’t do it. What you started to see were media companies retrench in the short term. That’s the short term. There’s two games uh in town, basically, right, for national media. You have the BuzzFeed’s of the world. Those were venture backed outlets. The same for Vice. Right. And so basically, you had a lot of promise in digital media on the back of eh, you don’t really need to make money right now. You just need to grow your audience, just grow, grow, grow. Right. And so what are the factors over the last five, ten years of the Internet you and I have been a part of to help you gain audience. You look at what’s trending on Google News? What are the Twitter moments today? What is Facebook telling you people want to consume content on? And basically we were able to show a lot of growth of these outlets on the backs of what’s trending. The other funding piece that I think you and I have a lot of more familiarity with is the publicly traded media company that’s like the L.A. Times or the Chicago Tribune or Gannett’s of the world. Again, like all of these models have changed over the last few years, but we’re a part of media conglomerates that run a lot of small and local news outlets are basically achieving efficiency at scale. What does that mean? You know, you’re covering L.A., but your tech folks might be out of Chicago. Then you start to see these layoffs and the discovery that content is actually really expensive, right? That reporting is expensive, that the advertising dollars that we used to use for a print product to come to your home every day, uh suddenly the L.A. Times’ of the world and others are in competition with guess who? BuzzFeed and Vice and Vox Media and other outlets that are free on the Internet. When your audience is everybody, your audience is nobody. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Absolutely. And as a result, as you just mentioned. We’ve seen now a lot of newsrooms, you know, shrinking. Many newsrooms are disappearing. I’ve particularly been thinking of this, there was this [?] study from last year that said that two local newspapers were shutting down every week in the United States. Obviously, we live in these big cities. Right. Your New Yorks, your L.A.s, your Atlantas of the world. Your Chicagos. But if you live in, you know, [?].  Your local newspaper, shutting down will have an outsized impact on your local community. Um. So I wonder if you could speak to a bit how this like broader system that is at play as it relates to our news is like impacting local communities on like a smaller level. I often think about media literacy already being in the shit can and how if you don’t have a newspaper now, you know, to hold your leaders accountable or to tell you, you know, what’s going on, how that just like deteriorates a society. So could you speak to that a little bit? 

 

  1. Mitra Kalita: Yeah, sure. I think two things can be true and they’re both connected. One is democracy is crumbling as a result of the scenario you lay out, right? If you don’t have news outlets in rural areas or smaller cities, suddenly the watchdog and the accountability on government is nonexistent. But also people’s participation with civic institutions starts to feel like eh I could just be on my couch. You can read some of the aforementioned outlets and feel outraged and tweet about it and feel like you participated, but you’re really not participating in your local government or community or activities, right? That’s one area that I think is really fraught in terms of the lack of information and affecting behaviors to participate. Right. The second piece, which is also true but connected to what I just said, is people are consuming more information than ever. Notice I use the word information. And so I think one thing we don’t talk about enough in the media is we looked at each other as competition. You’re at the L.A. Times. You know, maybe you’re looking at KPCC and LAist and um Valley Business Journal, The Daily News. Like those types of outlets, are the ecosystem by which media is judging effectiveness. Were we first on this story? Were we competitive on this story? What we’ve missed over the last few years is just massive consumption across different places, not just Twitter, Facebook and some of the social media outlets, but, you know, your neighborhood listserv might be where you’re getting this information. There’s a Reuters report out, and this is really depressing, which also explains, I think, some of the layoffs in the climate that we’re in. It asked uh news consumers around the world, how likely are you to subscribe to a news outlet? Most people not likely. Right. What would it take for you to subscribe? And by and large, the answer was nothing. Meaning we’re disengaged and we don’t want to engage. That hurdle, it’s not insurmountable, but it requires us to change the very nature of our product in order to survive.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. We’ll get back to that conversation momentarily. But first, let’s pay the bills. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Now back to my conversation with Mitra Kalita. You recently wrote an op ed uh for Time about how the diversity efforts in newsrooms that we particularly saw in 2020 have, you know, disappeared um by now in a lot of ways. I think of specifically how a lot of folks of color were hired in various positions in various news outlets as a result of 2020. And now as we see a lot of these layoffs happening. It’s a lot of folks of color, right, who are impacted as a result. Could you talk a bit about that circumstance and like what it says about, one, these alleged commitments that these outlets have made, but also kind of this broader issue that we’re talking about around how individuals and audiences are like interacting with the media at large. 

 

  1. Mitra Kalita: I think the L.A. Times in your own backyard is a good example of some trends that are happening across the industry. Over the last few years, not only did you have a billionaire buy it, uh you had the newsroom unionize. You had a big diversity push in the wake of George Floyd that pervaded the entire organization, including at the top of the organization. The editor in chief is African-American, Kevin Merida. He’s the second Black editor in chief of the L.A. Times. I think that’s really significant because you and I both fight not just for the first, but so that there is a second and a third and so forth. Right? What we’ve just seen with the L.A. Times and layoffs is a confluence of all of these things, the billionaire owner. How deep is the commitment when times are tough? Right? Times are tough right now, the advertising market has shrank. You have a union, the newsroom voted to unionize. What happens when you’re unionized? Yes, there are many, many benefits of that. But for the most part, the firing practices to be in compliance with unions and this has been a trend across digital media, so this is another thing you’re seeing, is last in, first out. What does that mean? The last people who got hired are the first who are going to be shed. And what happens when your commitment to diversity is always as recent as I’m sure you have some Southern phrase, like [laughter] it’s like the wind is blowing, right? It’s like– 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yes. 

 

  1. Mitra Kalita: It’s not entrenched in your organization. It’s a fad. But across our industry over the last few years, it was like, where are the people of color? You know? And URL, we run a recruitment arm and we’ve worked with a number of organizations and we have benefited from that desire to get people of color in the door as fast as possible. But what happens when times are tough? Because many of the other um chains that I mentioned were also union shops. And as long as diversity is a fad versus fundamental to the running of these organizations, we are going to shed talent every time there’s a downturn. And what is that called? It’s systemic racism, right? It is an example of institutions that have not changed themselves to meet the moment, but are kind of doing the cosmetic perfunctory effort to just have some photos with some people of color on their website. And that to me is probably one of the most hurtful parts of 2023, because I believe you cannot disconnect that from the financial failure of these models. You cannot connect the lack of imaginative thinking and the real desire to reinvent yourself with the failure of these institutions just full stop, right? These organizations are failing. And yet I would argue that they need diversity and connection to community more than ever for their survival, because that strategy of serving everybody, i.e. the majority of a country being white has clearly not worked. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: That was my conversation with Mitra Kalita, veteran journalist and co-founder of URL Media. [music break] One more thing before we go. Are you a trans person living in a red state that has recently passed a ban on gender affirming care? Have you or someone you love been personally affected by Republican backed attacks on LGBTQ+ rights? Do you want to make your voice heard right here on this very podcast about the real harm that these laws have on people’s lives? We want to hear from you. Send us a voice note or written response at WAD@Crooked.com with your name, where you’re from, and how you’ve been impacted. If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, that’s just fine too. Just let us know. [music break] That’s all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, read a newspaper and tell your friends to listen. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And if you’re into reading and not just how to keep local news alive like me. What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

[spoken together] And support local journalism. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Something we can be excited about. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yes. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: I love that for us. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: An end line we’re happy about. [laughter]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. Go subscribe to your local newspaper please and thanks. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Do it. I mean, my local newspaper published a police blotter every week and you’ve always got to see who is in trouble for drinking underage, it’s really fun. [laughter] I liked it personally. [music break]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. Our intern is Ryan Cochran, and our senior producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.