Comment: News isn’t good for local newspapers, their readers

Mergers and hedge-fund takeovers are resulting in layoffs and newspaper closures. But there is hope.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Given the tumult in the realm of government and politics, the dire state of the local newspaper industry may seem minor.

But it’s of crucial importance to the future of the nation. Local watchdog journalism matters: Just check the front page of the Baltimore Sun, which on Thursday carried a huge headline about the former mayor’s indictment; the Sun — even in its diminished state — broke a story in March that set those wheels in motion.

I could give you dozens of other examples from this year alone. And consider that sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein might have gotten away with most of his misdeeds if not for local journalism, particularly at the Miami Herald.

But the recent news about the news could hardly be worse.

What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.

“Will we point back to November 2019 as the day the music died for the news industry?” as University of Missouri journalism professor Tom Warhover put it.

There’s reason to think so, at least for local newspapers.

Here’s some of what happened in the past few days.

Gannett and GateHouse, two major newspaper chains, finished their planned merger, and the combined company intends to cut the combined budget by at least $300 million. That will come on top of unending job losses over the past decade in the affected newsrooms of more than 500 papers.

The McClatchy newspaper group — parent of the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer — is so weighed down by debt and pension obligations that analysts think it is teetering on bankruptcy.

And the storied Chicago Tribune on Tuesday fell into the control of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has strip-mined the other important papers it owns, including the Denver Post and the Mercury News in San Jose, California.

The Trib and its readers (and those served by other papers in the newspaper group, including Baltimore) have suffered under the ownership of Michael Ferro; and now he has provided a grim ending to what former Trib editor Ann Marie Lipinski aptly called his “cynical, avaricious” stewardship. (She is the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.)

Ferro’s move “ushers the vultures into Tribune,” said a Nieman Lab analysis by Ken Doctor. The implications of all these developments are stunning, he wrote: “The old world is over, and the new one — one of ghost newspapers, news deserts, and underinformed communities — is headed straight for us.”

Local newspapers — and, again, their readers — are already wracked by what’s happened, ever since newspaper advertising revenue plummeted more than a decade ago.

More than 2,000 local newspapers — mostly community weeklies — have gone out of business in the past 15 years, Penny Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina, told me in an interview last summer.

If anything, the pace of that loss has quickened.

And many of those papers that are left are phantoms of their former selves with only a few reporters and editors to cover whole metro areas.

“In communities across the nation, school boards are going unwatched, local contracts receive coverage indiscernible from press releases, local and national politicians are seldom brought under the microscope,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, the free-speech advocacy organization, which has completed a major study of the problem, its causes and its implications.

The picture isn’t entirely negative.

Across the country, many nonprofit news organizations have cropped up to help fill the gap. Among the oldest and most successful is the Texas Tribune in Austin, which will join forces with ProPublica, the highly respected digital investigative journalism organization, to further boost its statehouse coverage.

But as Duke University researchers found recently, it’s still local newspapers that are doing the heavy lifting in providing original local journalism; in many communities, more than all other news sources combined.

Can anything be done?

The answers, if there are any, certainly aren’t easy or obvious.

The PEN study calls for a “major new infusion of public and private investments” to put local news on a more secure footing, acknowledging that protections for editorial independence would have to be built in. And the organization’s leadership hopes to get people across the country talking and brainstorming solutions.

Foundations — particularly the Miami-based Knight Foundation — are already pouring money into local journalism, though they are struggling with the problem of “scale”; there are so many localities to try to help.

And individual philanthropists have bought or funded some papers. The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah became a nonprofit news organization recently,- the first commercial newspaper to make that transformation.

One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted. In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing.

They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.

Losing that should be unthinkable. But as of this moment, it isn’t.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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