Why democracy falters without local news

Season 1 Episode 7

Why democracy falters without local news

Gilbert Bailon

About The Episode

Our guest this week is Gilbert Bailon, the editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Our host spoke to Bailon about the importance of local news to American democracy. Local news organizations have been gutted in recent years, leaving communities across the country with little to no coverage and stripping them of their watchdogs. What are the consequences for American democracy and why should everyday Americans care?

Bailon joined the Post-Dispatch as editorial page editor in 2007 and then in 2012, became the paper’s editor. Before that, he was executive director of the Dallas Morning News and the founding editor and publisher of Al Dia, a daily Spanish-language newspaper owned by the Dallas Morning News. He has served as president of the American Society of News Editors, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Unity Journalists of Color.

By some estimates, 1,300 communities across the country now have no local news outlet at all, leaving them with no independent oversight of local government and corporate activities. Some cities, such as Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Youngstown lost their daily newspapers, while some papers like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, that used to provide award-winning, robust local coverage, are now operating on a shoestring with reduced staffs.

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Episode Transcript

Darragh Worland: Welcome back to Is that a fact? the all-new podcast brought to you by the nonprofit News Literacy Project. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Today, for the seventh episode of our series, we talk to Gilbert Bailon, editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, about the importance of local news to American democracy. Bailon joined the paper as editorial page editor in 2007 and then in 2012, became the paper’s editor. Before that, he was executive director of the Dallas Morning News and the founding editor and publisher of Al Dia, a daily Spanish-language newspaper owned by the Dallas Morning News. He has served as president of the American Society of News Editors, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Unity Journalists of Color. Bailon is a consummate professional and represents everything I admire about newspaper folk, an increasingly rare breed.

Local news organizations have been gutted in recent years. In the past 15 years, 1 in 5 newspapers have closed, leaving communities across the country with little to no coverage and stripping those communities of their watchdogs. By some estimates, 1,300 communities across the country have no local news outlet at all, leaving them with no independent oversight of local government and corporate activities. Some cities, such as Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Youngstown have lost their daily newspapers altogether. Meanwhile, some papers that used to provide award-winning and robust local coverage, like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, are now operating on a shoestring with reduced staffs. We talked to Bailon about what is being lost and why everyday Americans should care.

So Gilbert, for our listeners who might not be familiar with the paper you run, can you tell us about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, like circulation, readership?

Gilbert Bailon: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, we serve actually a bi-state area here. We’re a regional newspaper. We cover the region. It’s a metropolitan area of about 3 million people.

Worland: And how many staff do you have?

Bailon: We have about 78 people in the newsroom.

Worland: What can you tell us about the demographics of your readers?

Bailon: Like a lot of urban areas, where you have a core that’s much more urban and more ethnically diverse in the city and the inner rings and then the suburbs around it. So we have a large African American population in the city of St. Louis, and in some parts of St. Louis County, those are our two big areas. And then we have a lot of surrounding areas which, St. Charles County, Jefferson County, are more what you consider your ex-burbs and suburbs, but they’re all connected. So it’s a diverse area, geographically as well as ethnically and socioeconomic, other factors that we have.

Worland: Do you notice a difference in your subscriptions between generations, like older people are subscribing to the paper and younger ones are subscribing to digital? Do you have a digital-only offer?

Bailon: Our core print readership tends to be older. I wouldn’t say necessarily old, but certainly skew older than probably the greater population. But then when you put in online, not just digital subscriptions, but who accesses us online, because not all of them are subscribers, tend to be younger or across the board, really, because we do have older readers who look at our website and get our push notifications. And so it is diverse, but I would say definitely the digital audience skews younger and the print audience skews older.

Worland: What are the most popular sections of the paper, as far as you know?

Bailon: If you look at the online metrics, sports is a very big driver of online. Really, what does best on our website is any kind of local news. That could be sports. It could be features. It could be local news. All of those things drive a tremendous amount of traffic. This time of year, there’s also a lot of attention on our columnists and opinion because of the election season. So there’s quite a bit of activity that people are interested in what’s happening with either nationally or locally on the election front. But the ones that drive the most consistent traffic, most of the time, it would be sports, particularly baseball and hockey as well.

Worland: Can you tell us about a local story the paper has covered or one of the other papers that you’ve worked for has covered that’s had a significant impact on the community?

Bailon: I think the one here in St. Louis, the most recent one that really comes to mind is we had a couple of reporters who, through digging through records and sourcing, broke a really big story, which ultimately resulted in our county executive, the biggest county in Missouri, having their county executive indicted on federal corruption charges. He’s currently in jail. And the reason that’s important is that in the indictment itself, the federal prosecutors said, “We followed the trail from your newspaper reports.” And what they did is they put together a contract here, where money was going, favorable deals that were happening, and these weren’t easily visible, but through kind of dogged beat work and then open records with Jacob Barker and Jeremy Kohler, they found multiple times where there was money being – pay for play, basically, as they call it in politics – and it ended up not only the county executive going to jail, but some others pleaded guilty and directly because of our reporting.

So that had a big impact. I think it’s changed a lot in county government here, where there’s more effort to be transparent about business deals and where money is flowing. It’s still a subject of debate, but I think our immediate impact on that was very big, and I think it had a good benefit for our democracy locally, where that now we expose that these things need to be done with open portals, things posted online, more debate, open meetings, things of that nature, so the public can see where their dollars are going.

Worland: So would you say that that’s a big part of the impact of local reporting, doing that kind of story?

Bailon: Oh, there’s no doubt. I think … we call it accountability journalism. I mean, there’s different names for it. Some might call it investigative, but accountability being that we do the work, to hold to account the powers and institutions that make policy and affect people’s lives. Whatever the city or throughout the country, sometimes it’s public officials, sometimes it could be a private corporation, but the idea that we need to track and make transparent things that are happening that affect people’s lives. And this would be a very good example.

There’s many other, there’s things that are going on right now during the pandemic that are very similar, where is money flowing, how are things being tracked on a local level to show people what’s happening with the government, how they’re responding or not responding in some areas.

Worland: Well, actually, I’m glad you brought up the pandemic because that’s obviously the biggest story aside from the election that’s going on right now and has been going on for several months. How has the pandemic affected the paper’s ability to report and what you’re reporting on, and what kind of role have you been playing locally in covering COVID-19?

Bailon: Well, clearly the pandemic has changed life for everybody and certainly how we gather the news. Most of our staff is working remotely like many, many places are, but we’ve been able to find a way to cover news better than I thought we were going to going into this. Working remotely, where we’re used to being in a newsroom and having people around and having public access to meetings, the Zoom calls, the other things that everybody else is doing. We’ve been able to really ferret out a lot of information about everything from poor counting of cases, we’ve had PPE shortages, other things of local impact that I think really affects people: where to get testing done, school openings, all kinds of other things that really hit the local level. While people are cued into what’s going on on a national scale, really where a lot of this plays out across the country is in local neighborhoods, and so we’ve been able to do that.

It is a challenge. I mean, it’s not getting access to people. Ordinarily we could just find a public official after a meeting and go up and talk to him or her and get comment on things. It’s a little bit more difficult at times, but we’ve been able to, I think for the most part, get the access that we need to. They have been able to use it to stonewall us because you can’t always get to somebody like you used to, but I think we’ve overcome most of those obstacles for the most part.

Worland: Well, trust in journalists in the news media, as I’m sure you know, has been on the decline for a while and it’s even been accelerating in recent years. Have you noticed an upward trend in the number of readers who are complaining about coverage or who are distrusting the paper’s reporting process?

Bailon: I think the distrust of institutions, period, has escalated and among those would be the local news media. I think would also be true of government and other institutions as well, so we’re part of that there’s no doubt. And I think the political polarization is really filtering down to the local level as well.

What we see, unfortunately, sometimes on national TV, in the national media, that same kind of polarization filters down because people are consuming that and it does influence how they think. You’re not covering that, you’re too biased, why aren’t you covering that? You’re being favorable. And what’s interesting is it comes from both sides. It comes from the progressive side and it comes from the right. So somewhere in the middle, we try to be, I wouldn’t say necessarily objective, but as fair as we can be and as accurate as we can be on our reporting, but there is a perception in different circles that somehow our news is being skewed one way or the other in every headline.

I think that’s really amplified by social media in particular because we’re all part of that. I don’t think it defines necessarily what everybody thinks, but that is a sounding board and it has an influence on what people read and think. It’s also a tool for us to get information out because we use Facebook and other places for people to, other social media outlets, to get people to read our content, so it’s a kind of a double-edged effect for us.

But yeah, I also think what’s interesting is, well, sometimes I pick up my phone in the morning and have some voicemails that are really, really cranky. There are others who really say keep on doing what you’re doing. Particularly now, just trying to inform people about how democracy works, because we have a very strange and complicated election going on with mail-in and absentee, and you’re not going to hear on CNN how to vote in St. Louis County or St. Louis City. That’s our role.

Worland: So I was going to ask you, what’s your plan for reporting on the election results? I think as many of us know, it might not be clear because of COVID and so many people voting remotely with mail-in ballots. We may not know the results for a while, and I think it’s going to be incumbent on news organizations to handle that with care. So what’s your plan?

Bailon: Well, I think that’s exactly what we’re going to do is we’re going to be cautious, on the national races in particular. My belief, I could be wrong, but I think a lot of the local and regional races are going to be decided probably that night, if not the next day, because here, the votes can’t be counted after an election night, election day. They have to be in by that day or they’re not counting. We’re not going to have three days afterwards or some of the other things being talked about. So I think on more of a local regional race, we should have an idea, but on the national scale, it’s going to be very different. So we’ve talked about this. We’re going to hedge a lot more, unless races have been officially called and say things are leaning this way or looking that way or leading, as opposed to somebody won, unless there’s an outright victory.

And I think we’ll have some on the local level, but we’re going to be cautious with that. There’s a decent chance that there’s going to be some litigation on a national level. We don’t know. It’s possible. And so we have to be very precise on what we know and what we don’t know, and what hasn’t been counted and what vote is out where. I think all media are thinking about that, is tell them what we know. And also, if we don’t know certain things, try not to make presumptions. Plus the fact that it’s such a volatile election to begin with, even without the pandemic. So people being told to go to the polls and watch the polls and I think all those things factor in, that we’re going to present what we do know, and also be cautious not to present things that we are assuming.

Worland: Has mail-in voting been a problem in the past in Missouri? Do you know?

Bailon: We’ve had absentee voting. We don’t have what is typically called just general early voting where you can go vote before … we don’t have that in Missouri. The legislature has not allowed that, but we have absentee voting for a reason, for an excuse. You’re elderly or disabled. You have to give an excuse. I’m going to be out of town. But you couldn’t just go vote. But now this year, there is mail-in voting so it’s very new here. It’s not in some parts of the country. And so there’s a lot of complications for people who are trying to do that. And there’s a huge, like areas across the country, a huge early-vote turnout. Way beyond what we’ve ever seen before.

Worland: So wait, are you saying there’s no mail-in voting there even now, or they’re just never has … there is now?

Bailon: Previously, there was not. Yeah.

Worland: Got it.

Bailon: If you did, you could vote absentee before, but that was always a very small select group of people who had to give an excuse. Now there’s no excuse, but you do have to go through processes and get notarization. So for example, we did an interactive that showed here’s how you can get your ballot notarized because we haven’t done this, this hasn’t happened before, at least in Missouri. So this is fairly new ground here. It’s not in other parts of the country, but it is here.

Worland: Right. So how have you handled the president’s disparagement of mail-in ballots?

Bailon: You know, we cover the national news. It’s primarily through the wire services. We have certainly opined on our editorial pages that we think that this is a canard, that this is a safe system, that it has been, and many states have done it for years and years and years. And we, editorially, make a distinction. Editorially, we have said, “We do not believe this is a threat to democracy the way he thinks,” that he has been saying and others. And but we have a conservative legislature and they have somewhat echoed concern about mail-in ballots in particular, not to the degree that President Trump has, but it is certain this is a Republican-controlled state. They’ve said that. We believe that that isn’t a big threat. I mean, there’s so many precautions that are already in place. We believe it’s overstated and I think it’s kind of a misdirection. Editorially, again. In the news columns, what we do is we’ll run, we carry the Washington Post here, we carry Tribune, we carry AP, like everybody. So we’re pretty straight up with that, but we also do acknowledge, to the readers, here’s how our system works.

Worland: I want to pivot to misinformation, which is obviously the great scourge of our era. How would you say the spread of misinformation has affected you and your team at the paper and the work that you do?

Bailon: Misinformation is a scourge and there’s misinformation and there’s also advocacy information. There’s kind of both. Some people have a point of view. Other people just deliberately are misleading. And so I think that really comes to fore through social media. It also applies to cable news, talk news, on radio and other places where especially conspiracy theories that come up that are unproven, that becomes … right now, we have readers calling and saying, “We should have Hunter Biden on the front page every day about his laptop.” And we have had stories about it and we will have stories about it, but there has to be something more tangible than just that we found this information. Has it been verified? If there’s an investigation, we will cover it. So I wouldn’t say that’s misinformation because I’m not even sure what you call that, but it’s certainly, there’s a group of people who feel that somehow we’re not representing their viewpoint. You can also do that on the left as well, that we were too cozy with some of the politicians. That we haven’t held people to account. We hear from them as well.

But the misinformation, really, I think a lot of it comes on online. It’s either through websites or it comes through social media. People put up doctored information or conspiracy theories about COVID, that kids can’t get it, and some of these things have been propagated by politicians as well. Fighting against that, it’s the best thing we do, is we quote experts, whatever the category of whatever the news or the economists.

Worland: So do you feel like a lot of your time is spent trying to correct the record on a lot of issues more so than maybe earlier in your career?

Bailon: Probably we do spend a little bit more time, but I think rather than say, “Hey, let’s correct this, let’s find out the closest we can get to the truth or the facts as we know them and present them and then let people decide what that is.” When somebody says, “President Trump had the best economy in the history of the world,” he didn’t. He had a good economy, but let’s show the facts around it. Rather than say he didn’t, let’s show what it was before and other previous times. There are things that can be proven.

Things can sometimes change. I mean, we have, like a lot of places here, there’s a lot of controversy over whether masks work or don’t work. So the state does not have a mask mandate here. Our county and city does. So what we try to do is just… this is what the science is telling us. This is what CDC says, FDA and others. And then you can make your decision. But things like that are strange because that’s become very political, for something that you wouldn’t have thought a few years ago would be a political statement. It’s a public health crisis, but it’s become extremely political.

Worland: Have you guys ever been accused of printing, I’m going to say so-called fake news, because as I’m sure you feel the same, we don’t like the term because it’s such an oxymoron.

Bailon: Oh yeah. I mean, that term is really rendered almost meaningless now, but yes. In fact, egged on by some politicians who have said stories that we have done that weren’t complimentary or somehow showed them in a bad light were fake news. We had Steve Stenger, the county executive who’s now in jail, when we first wrote those stories said, literally used the term fake news. We had former Governor Greitens say stories about him were fake news. He later resigned in a personal scandal and was investigated for various things, but saying some of the stories we did were fake news.

So it is definitely, that term, much to our chagrin, has become part of the vernacular and it’s become anything that’s critical or something you disagree with it becomes fake. And that’s not what we do. You can say, I disagree with it. There are other facts. But it is certainly absorbed in the system of what people consider to be fake news. It’s unfortunate because that term really, a few years ago, it was just not, I mean, it had some kind of other meaning. It really meant things that were truly fabricated, not things that put people in a negative light or raised questions.

Worland: And then there was a case too, toward the beginning of the pandemic, where the current governor, Mike Parson, accused your editorial board of referring to state residents outside of the city, outside of St. Louis, as simple-minded rural Missourians. And then it sounds like you printed a retort. Is this sounding familiar to you?

Bailon: Yeah, and we did and we didn’t use that terminology. That was his interpretation of what we did. His base is what we call, here we call it out-state, would be more of the rural or semi-rural areas. We did not call anybody simple-minded and that’s what some of his handlers put out in social media is saying we called them simple-minded. That phrase was never used. But then again, once it gets out in the ecosphere of social media, people believe that it happened. They didn’t go back and read the editorial. I find, across the board, it’s not just necessarily political, people form opinions based on a headline or a tweet and don’t even read the story and make assumptions about it and then make opinions about what we’re doing when often those questions are answered in the story, if you go on and read it. But we can’t control that, but it is a factor, of how people kind of jumped to conclusions when, especially on social media.

Worland: Well, what would you say was the effect of that particular accusation and how did you guys remedy it, or did you feel like the damage was done and that even correcting the record didn’t help so much?

Bailon: Well, what we did is we wrote about it. We said, “This is what we really said,” and we put that out for the public to consume. So I think we didn’t write a letter to him, but we made very well known in our pages and online, it was basically a distortion of what that editorial said. Now, he probably didn’t like the editorial because it was critical of him, but we did not demean rural Missouri. That was not the point of that. And, but it helps spin that way. We get that from the progressive side too. If we’re critical of a progressive candidate, they too will go on to social media and say, they won’t use the term fake news, but they will misconstrue the words, what we said.

And so it’s not just one way, but it is I think more vocal and it’s more intense, and I think just the fact that people are polarized now, and there’s the kind of almost in a crouching position, sometimes waiting to pounce on certain things. And what we need to do is set the record straight. Here’s what we did say. What we try to do when things like this come up with news stories, wherever we can put the original document up, here, you can read the letter or you can read that court file and you can read the indictment yourself and see what you think.

Worland: I want to pivot to talking about the decline of local news more generally, as somebody who’s worked in local news, I want to get your take on some of this and some of the impact of that. So by some estimates, more than I think it’s 2,000 local newspapers in the country have gone out of business in the past 15 or so years, and some areas of the country are even dubbed news deserts where there’s just not even one local publication or outlet providing news on their community. Why have local news organizations been shuttering at such a pace?

Bailon: Well, those numbers are correct. I had heard the term 2,100 since 2004, which is about right. A lot of those are small ones, obviously, but that’s important because they, and many of them don’t have radio and TV or others, that the newspaper in many of these smaller places are the main place people get information, shared information, information about their local government and schools, high schools and other things. So it is in fact, these deserts, it’s very troubling.
The biggest factor is probably economics. There are some big publicly traded newspaper companies that have just found that they’re not viable financially. There’s others that are privately owned, families that just feel like with revenue being the way it is, declining readership, that it’s just no longer worth doing it so they either sell or close. Those are factors. In some cities, some of the papers continue, but they’re printing fewer days. They’re not doing seven days a week. They’re not dailies, but a lot of those papers were weeklies, so they’re smaller, but they play a very important role in the communities. Because again, they are often the main way people get information.

It is, I think, a bad move. I mean, I don’t think we can necessarily say, “Oh, we’re going to go open up.” On the other hand, there are some places now, where some online, pure online publications are opening up to provide news coverage. And I think that’s an opportunity, but again, the model’s tough because if you’re a pure online, sometimes you don’t get the revenue. Some of them are nonprofits. We’ve seen in Memphis, they have the Memphian. They have a Voice of San Diego. There’s some other places, others that are doing pure online newspapering, or I shouldn’t say newspapering, they’re really online news websites, because they’re finding that the need is there.

I am troubled that the more that happens, that particularly in small America or mid-size America, where’s that accountability? What’s the sheriff doing? What’s happening in the jail? Social justice is a huge issue right now. All these small towns have police departments. Do people have body cameras? What’s happening to people who are charged? Who’s getting charged? Those things just are swept under the rug because there’s nobody to go look for it.
And so, it is a very basic part of our democracy. It’s troubling. I do think that there are some online answers that are coming up. There’s some big ones too. I mean, the ProPublica, Marshall Project, some of the big national ones do outstanding work. There’s others. But what the biggest concern is on the local level. A town of 2,000 people, and who’s going to be at the county Commission Board when they’re talking about speed traps, or they’re talking about paving roads or things that hit home very uniquely? Some of the shenanigans that can go on when people aren’t looking can’t go on. People can’t necessarily have cronyism and corruption and pad the deck, even in some of these small locations. But if there’s nobody looking at it, who’s going to catch them? And I think that’s a big factor, that the public corruption becomes more viable in markets where there aren’t newspapers.

Worland: Right. There’s no watchdog oversight. Studies also show that the loss of local news can lead to greater political polarization. Why do you think that would be?

Bailon: Well, I think people are polarized often by either misinformation or a lack of information. And I think what, again, as I mentioned before, the national polarity is sinking down to local levels as well. And so if we don’t have local people that try to put, I think, a more authentic spin on what really is happening, people get very polarized. They get afraid of things they don’t know about. I think that’s one of the things that’s shaping this election, that people are afraid of the other, things of the unknown or somehow their lives are going to be ruined. When in fact, if you look at some of the local situations, it’s not nearly as dire as you would say. MS-13 is not moving into Iowa, but you would think that because people are being told that, but if a newspaper or a local station can document some of the issues of crime and safety, or what is the immigration issue, some of these things that are views to some, I think on a national level, to really divide people, you can get a better take on that.

It’s a strange dichotomy because you have a situation where a lot of these towns may not have as much news, but people are just saturated in information. You know, your cell phone is constantly going off. If you’re on your iPad or your PC, you got tons and tons of information, some of it not good. And I think that’s why people right now around the world are trying to – I wouldn’t necessarily hack the system – but influence through various means, political websites, bots, hacking things, to influence people’s thought because there’s so much coming in, and a lot of people just don’t discern what is good information, discern the source, discern what the facts are and make a lot of assumptions, and it makes people scared.

Worland: Yeah, it sounds a little bit like you’re saying, not being regular news consumers of local news can also damage people’s ability to discern fact from fiction.

Bailon: Yes. I believe that. And I think what we in the media business – we who do this, whatever the form – is we have to be as transparent as we can of what we’re doing, where we got our sources, what we’re basing our information on, what we don’t know, to let them know this is as truthful as we can get there. And there’s quite a bit of effort in our industry to try to show that, show your work, and here’s what we know and don’t know.

And I think that is important for readers, but I don’t know that all the public, some public gets that, but there are some public who think we have some malevolent view of we’re trying to present a bias in some way or another, which in fact that’s not what happens, but there’s that feeling because some people are telling them that. I mean, the president’s called us, we’re the enemy of the people. I mean, that’s pretty dire circumstance and if you believe that, it’s hard to believe that when you do your story about your local police department or a school board, do you believe that, if somebody is telling you that and you buy into that?

So that is different in the last five years or so. We always have been criticized. President Nixon did it. Other people did it, but to the level that it is now, there’s a whole market of trying to undercut the media. But keep in mind, I always tell people this, who is the media you’re talking about? Are you talking about a very highly local level, television stations, public radio, all kinds of different things? And the often those distinctions don’t get made. I just try to remind people that be very specific of what you’re talking about, because, and then you get into the world of social media and the internet, it’s just a jungle of information out there.

Worland: The so-called media is not monolithic. That’s a point that we like to make at the News Literacy Project as well. So what do you think the public can do to protect local news? What should we be doing as Americans to protect what you’ve made a great case for?

Bailon: One, I mean, there’s kind of a basic, almost a really fundamental rule is that subscribe or read, or even if you don’t subscribe, read online, support whatever the news organization. There’s lots of them. There’s newspapers, television, radio, weeklies, even some of these websites I’ve talked about. Sometimes it could be just financial, it could be subscribing, but I also think engage with them. Read them, engage with the staff, either through social media or email or otherwise there are ways to – if you have story ideas, if you think things aren’t being covered, even if you’re negative about a certain place – engage with that institution, because the reality is that virtually every newspaper outside the really, really big ones, we have smaller staffs. We have fewer people. And so we’re stretched thinner, but that doesn’t mean there’s not ways to do good journalism. We believe we have very much a vital role.

So with that, help us out, as I would say. What don’t we know? Did we get it right or what are we missing? But I think more important is engage. I think people who completely tune out whatever they decide is “the media” are losing. And I think that would undermine our democracy because the First Amendment is a very important part of what we do in this country and that’s the First Amendment for a good reason. And we’re a big part of that. It will not be good for our democracy if we lose the ability to converse and know what’s happening in our democracy.

And if people are tuning out, that’s not a good thing. And I know that that happens. They’re just disengaged or they’re just jaded about things at large. Maybe not even the media, but, well, why do I vote? Because it’s not going to count or there’s the same old system, that kind of throw up your hands. We have to have people engaged in democracy. It’s not a political view. It’s a part of how things have to run to be better. I mean, we’re a big part of it here, but there’s a whole lot of other opportunities for people to gain information. I encourage you to do it. Have a healthy balanced diet of what you hear and read.

Worland: And what is the cost if people disengage from democracy?

Bailon: Well, I think part of it, I think there’s also a disenchantment with government and frustration. Sometimes people feel that the system is just not working for them. They’ve been forgotten. That things, I mean – I hate to use the word rigged because that’s been used – but it’s just whatever they do, they’re just kind of players in this. They don’t have any way to shape their own destiny. And I think that becomes part of it with, with government in particular, and how things are run.

And I’m not saying that’s the majority, but there are people who just feel like it’s not going to affect their lives. They’re feeding their families, they’re working their jobs, but really they don’t need to go sign that petition or worry about very hyper-local things.

But I think disengagement is a concern. I do think electorally this year, there are more people engaged, because of the polarization and other factors. So I would say that kind of ability to foment change also means you need to be aware of what’s happening. That’s where the media comes in. We don’t create change. What we create is information. We create the ability for people to have the knowledge to act in whatever way they think is important.

Worland: What do you think the secret of your success has been when so many newspapers across the country are closing or reducing their staffs? Like what has kept the Post-Dispatch going?

Bailon: We, like most metros around the country, we are smaller. We had some cuts because we’re a publicly traded company and that’s true, but I think part of it is that I think our corporation Lee Enterprises knows that news is an important part. And I always tell my bosses that, and they agree, that if we’re going to drive digital subscriptions and get people to read the paper, it has to be content driven. And it has to be largely local. I mean, not entirely. We have people here who care about a lot of things, but we have to have that heavy diet of local news, original news, that people are willing to pay for and also feel is valuable. So that’s helped us here.

Our company, like many other companies, have diversified and gone into doing some other things with digital agencies and events and other things to drive money, but the core still is content. It is local content that people are willing to pay for and want to spend time reading.

Newspapers are not just a print edition and I think that there’s this belief that all the newspapers are dying. Well, no, not really. Let me tell you why. We’re multi-platform. We have video chats, podcasts, social media, graphics. We’re on multi-platforms. We’re on your phone. We’re giving you a push notification about when major news breaks or a big sports story or an icon dies locally. We are engaged 24/7 and I think there’s a perception of newspapers is just what hits your doorstep. It’s still an important part of our economic part for newspapers, but we’re weaning ourselves off that to become much more digital and we are very digital now. So when people say, “Oh, I don’t read the Post-Dispatch.” Then I say, “You remember this story? Well, that was from our story. TV followed it or the radio followed it.”

Worland: What do you think the role of news literacy in all this is? Where do you see it fitting in?

Bailon: News literacy has probably been never more important than it is right now. It’s been important for a long time. I think there’s a combination of factors. One, we talked about, there is declining media in some areas because of just not as many media outlets. I think there’s also this, the barrage on the internet and social media of either contrived news or advocacy news or biased news or political news with a certain bent, from all different angles, that sometimes can just present either misinformation or certainly misconstrued information. So that muddies the water.

Where did it come from? Who did this? Why are they doing it? There is not always clear answers, but to be a little bit more discrete in what you’re believing. I have friends all the time who say, I just saw this video of such and such, is this true? Sometimes it’s manufactured or sometimes it’s clipped, it’s edited. News literacy is asking those kinds of questions. And again, having a very diverse source of information. Don’t rely on one. I would never tell anybody, only read The Post-Dispatch. I think that’d be wrong. I think if you’re in St. Louis or you’re in Miami or wherever, if you’re not reading the daily newspaper, you’re missing out on something. We’re the biggest newsrooms. We have the best reporters. We have the most local expertise, but there’s a whole lot of other players in town who you should be paying attention to, and I think if you’re doing that, then you have a more complete view.

Worland: Thanks for listening. We’ve been talking to Gilbert Bailon, editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Next week, we’ll talk to Cindy Otis, an expert on disinformation threat analysis, and a former CIA analyst about the rise of conspiracy theories.

“Is that a fact?” is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit helping educators, students and the general public become news literate so they can be active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. Alan Miller is our founder and CEO. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb. Our editor is Timothy Cramer, and our theme music is by Eryn Busch. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to


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