Newspapers strive to report the news without becoming news themselves. This should be easier in the digital age as our focus is not only on the content that is published online but also on the social media comments on that follow those stories.
The 2022 Florida legislative session thrust newspapers back into headlines as a bill passed to remove the requirement that governments purchase public notices in newspapers in addition to posting those announcements online.
Critics of the bill, primarily those who work in the print news industry including the Chronicle editorial board, denounced the bill as creating less transparency for the public. Some even speculated that it was political retaliation against coverage which can sometimes be critical when lawmakers make mistakes.
Though this feels superficially self-interested from paper executives primarily as an argument to preserve a long-relied upon revenue stream, the critics are correct that the lack of transparency is troublesome. We agree with the Chronicle. It was a bad bill.
This doesn't mean that newspapers are above reproach for shady actions, however. This can sometimes be internal dealings within newsrooms which have some south Florida publications making headlines.
On Friday, journalists and workers of the Miami Herald, Bradenton Herald and El Nuevo Herald all staged a single day walkout to protest pay inequities from parent company McClatchy. This walkout was metaphorical on many levels both as a protest and with the employees lacking the literal ability to walkout since the Miami Herald newsroom closed during the pandemic and all employees are now remote workers.
The most surprising part of the story is how few newspapers McClatchy actually owns. The Columbia Journalism Review article cites the media conglomerate with 30 that it operates though the corporation is heavily involved with other forms of media and recently sold to a hedge fund for $320 million.
Compare this to Paxton Media Group, the company that bought Landmark Community Newspapers and the Citrus County Chronicle a little less than a year ago. After the Landmark acquisition, PMG owned 120 newspapers primarily in the deep south and Florida.
According to a graph that was released in 2020 and subject to some changes, PMG leap frogged several competitors with the Landmark acquisition into the top five largest newspaper consortiums in the nation.
Our little hometown paper is part of some big business. You’ve probably noticed some changes beyond the aesthetic font choices such as a much higher percentage of digital ads coming from corporations rather than local businesses.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the public relations approach to journalism. This is something the Concurrent has explored in the past and even speculated would get exacerbated under the new PMG ownership.
In someways, this prediction has been right but for the betterment of the community. The addition of nonprofit spotlights is a prime example of the paper acting as a public relations tool. Though some nonprofits that provide similar services may cry foul that competitors for donor dollars are getting unfair media attention, this practice is ultimately good for the county.
What is not good is when this same practice is applied to politics.
Sixteen days after Governor Ron DeSantis shook up the Citrus electoral landscape with endorsements in the state senate and state house elections, the Chronicle editorial board finally published a piece on Friday addressing the issue. Why wait over two weeks?
The most likely explanation is that financial frontrunner JJ Grow dropped out but former county commissioner Rebecca Bays had not. The speculation among politically active was that Bays is considering a run for the county commission in district 4 which would put her against John Murphy, a longtime Chronicle employee and husband of the paper’s publisher.
Unsurprisingly, Friday’s editorial urged all candidates still filed for state house, which currently includes Bays, to stay in the race despite the incumbent Rep. Ralph Massullo now seeking reelection.
This could be the first sign of what is to come from the Chronicle during this campaign cycle. Last election season there was a pattern of troublesome examples that favoritism explicitly expressed in the opinion section spilled over into news selection in how the county was informed. This directly led to the founding of the Concurrent to be another voice in the local media space.
PMG as a top newsprint conglomerate in the country has a delicate balance to walk to preserve our hometown charm of the Chronicle while also upholding journalistic standards to properly inform the public without introducing an element of persuasion.