June 14, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly changed the way I got my news. But to understand what changed, you have to know where I started. Since 2003 I have broken the mold of media consumption. Before 2003 I was the typical media consumer. In Columbia, Missouri, you could get 36 cable channels and high speed Internet for just $44 a month. I moved up to Juneau and 36 channel cable TV was $100 just by itself! I was house-sitting for the first six months and the owners’ cable package was included in the deal. I wasn’t impressed with the cable TV product in Juneau. As a result, when the family moved up I made the executive decision to drop cable.
Imagine what that saved. I calculated the savings to be $1200 to $1600 per year. The only thing I missed was sports. But between friends and sports bars I could see a lot of games. Needless to say, after 18 years I have kept $25,000 in the bank! That covered one child going through college.
But what really needed an adjustment was news. I had been a big fan of Shepherd Smith on Fox News which came on at 6 PM when I lived in Missouri. But it was mid-afternoon in Alaska and I had to get my news from other sources. I subscribed to The Economist and, working at a university, was able to get all the local news I wanted. But since working for the US Forest Service, I have had to get my local news from the Internet and that is primarily our local PBS station KTOO and our private sector station KINY. Both serve the community well. I switched my subscription to Bloomberg BusinessWeek to get a global perspective with more in-depth reporting at less cost. As you can see, without cable TV I was completely off-the-grid for NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox News broadcast news. The written word was most important – and it was on-demand.
When the COVID-19 outbreak emerged I had a strong need for current news. The primary source? YouTube! While I like Fox News, their opinion-orientation was too much opinion and not enough information. My first inclination was to track Canadian news. The Canadian experience with SARS was apparently quite traumatic and their radar was up on the pandemic sooner than that of the U.S. I realized I wanted news about China and the Pacific Rim countries.
The resulting mix of news sources showed a significant shift. About a year ago I encountered an interesting news source called Epoch Times. As the COVID-19 outbreak emerged in January, I observed there was an affiliated news service called NTD. Included in that nest was a rather entertaining program called China Uncensored. All three sources had a daily presence on YouTube.
I can warn you that these inter-connected news services have an agenda. They are funded through a group with connections to Falon Gong, a “religious” group that has been persecuted in China. Evidently, they have wealthy members. They formed a news channel to provide an alternative to the drone of media feeds that come out of China. They don’t like the Chinese Communist Party and they don’t disguise that. Yet the news they provide has been surprisingly accurate and the events they report are often well in advance of mainstream media information in the U.S.. For example, NBC Nightly News provided 30 seconds to President Trump’s response to Hong Kong’s loss of special status. NTD provided 30 minutes! Trust me, the devil is in the details and what is happening in Hong Kong today is the equivalent of the Berlin Wall! If you depend on NBC for your news source, you are missing something. (Please don’t get me wrong – I like NBC Nightly News).
Two other sources for COVID-19 news is DW (Deutsche Welle) and ABC (Australia Broadcasting). Through YouTube I have collected a symphony of global news coverage that has rendered most of the U.S.-focused news services irrelevant. I needed information and reliable information at that. Because of these news sources I was able to follow what was working in other parts of the globe, as well as what was not working. I learned that one country acted on the pandemic before January 1st, 2020: Taiwan. DW, NTD and even PBS (through Nova) have noted that there was some knowledge that something was wrong as early as mid-December. Taiwan acted immediately and, as a result, have suffered a remarkably low rate of illnesses and death.
It is from this knowledge that I have a great deal more respect for the experts and government officials that advised a lockdown. They are certainly knowledgeable about what the rest of the world is doing. This information is vital. I not always positive that the average American is aware of that.
A lot is going to change in our world as the repercussions of the pandemic are digested and reviewed. I know that because my source of information has changed radically. While news services in the U.S. are tied to cable TV, the rest of the world is changing to Internet news services. The pandemic has hopefully taught most Americans that we live in a global community and our information sources need to provide adequate intelligence so we can better understand our world.
Yet on the flip side I discovered that our local news services are severely strained. Oddly enough, the best source of local news reverted back to AM/FM radio. Our NPR news service is the most available, and it is well done. The newspaper? Again – they are hooked on a scenario that you get three shots and then you have to subscribe. In the middle of a pandemic? You got to be kidding! The best newspaper source for Juneau is the Anchorage Daily News!
During one of our chats over Facebook we were exchanging suggestions for local COVID-19 information sources. We had to collect links through Facebook for web sites from state offices and local resources, and there were a lot of gaps in the information that failed to address important questions. Hmm – had to use Facebook!? Maybe that is a sign that things are changing.
It is no secret that the media industry has been gutted by the rise of the Internet. As of now, there is no financial model that is robust enough to provide the level of news services we have come to expect. Local news services are virtually disappearing. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown there is a dire need to maintain local news services that serve the needs of the community. But how will that be done?
For one – local news outlets will need to go with the flow. The insistence of the local newspaper to require subscriptions during a pandemic illustrates a short-sighted approach to marketing. I think the Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets have got the right idea of presenting important featured news coverage to the general public and enabling full access to subscribers. Yet competitive local news services such as our NPR and private sector news stations have strained to maintain a sustainable news service. It is really tough out there.
Throughout this pandemic I have realized how much I control where I want to get the news. That works for national and international news. But local news sources are particularly difficult to find, where vital information the public needs is given in 5 minute news segments. It is a bit distressing that your best source for the news is the local and state government – and Facebook.
By Eric Niewoehner
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