Commentary

The great newspaper erosion (and the future hope)

October 23, 2021 5:40 am

Some people who grew up with print media are turning to digital. (Provided by Mike Van Schoonderwalt via Pexels.com.)

By one accounting, more than 2,100 U.S. newspapers closed between 2005 and 2020.

We’ve all heard the stories, many pretty bleak.

Smaller newspapers are purchased by large chains, which cannibalize newsrooms in order to squeeze the last cents – and sense – out of “the product.” Hedge funds with track records of slashing costs – meaning jobs – and maximizing returns for a handful of already really wealthy people are buying up newspapers.

Alden Global Capital is one such hedge fund. The group recently purchased the Tribune Company, owner of the venerable Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the New York Daily News, among other papers.

“The purchase of Tribune reaffirms our commitment to the newspaper industry and our focus on getting publications to a place where they can operate sustainably over the long term,” said Heath Freeman, the president of Alden. Separately it was reported that at least 10 percent of already depleted newsroom staffs at Tribune were taking financially slim buyouts, while senior top editors were replaced.

Freeman, the hedge fund guy, is doing great, however. He recently plunked down $19 million for a modest little six bed, six bath joint in an exclusive neighborhood in Miami.

More is at stake here than the survival of the local paper. As local news has been crushed under a variety of burdens from declining ad revenue to non-discerning readers and viewers who gravitate only to “news” outlets that serve only to confirm own ideological opinions, democracy has taken a hit, as well.

The non-profit Niskanen Center, a think tank doing first-rate, deeply researched work on a range of public policy issues, has produced an important new report on the links between local news and the health of American democracy.

“As local news has withered,” the authors of the new report noted, “so too has citizens’ ability to monitor the effectiveness of state and local officials. This has been a key driver in the ‘nationalization’ of politics, which refers to voters only drawing on preferences regarding national politics to evaluate politicians and policy at all levels of the federal system.”

Or put another way, as we increasingly frame all our thoughts about politics at every level around a question of “Biden or Trump” we ignore many of the really vital issues in our own communities. When the local newspaper shrinks or goes away this reality becomes even more pronounced.

As dire as the local journalism situation seems – and it is dire – there are some flickering signs of hope out there.

States Newsroom, a non-profit, now offers free online and first-rate coverage of state capitol and other news in 22 states. In every state with a States Newsroom – Idaho, Montana and Oregon have such outlets – the newsroom leader is a veteran “local” journalist doing superb work.

The Daily Montanan recently broke a blockbuster story, reported by Keila Szapaller, about sexual harassment at the University of Montana law school. The expose forced the resignation of the school’s dean and his deputy.

The Idaho Capital Sun and reporter Audrey Dutton have provided the very best statewide coverage of the state’s pitifully inadequate response to COVID-19. (Full disclosure: I have contributed opinion pieces to both organizations.)

In Arizona, as another example, the Arizona Mirror, reported this week on Congressman Paul Gosar’s recent trafficking in neo-Nazi and white supremacy images. A story larger news organizations missed.

Another potentially promising local news development is the union of legacy news organizations with public broadcasters. This type of union is unfolding in Chicago where WBEZ, the local public broadcast outlet, is fixing to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. Initial plans contemplate no layoffs, but instead the addition of more staff.

Authors of the Niskanen Center report offer another intriguing idea: “Political donors could redirect their financial support to local media.” A deep-pocketed contributor to political campaigns might spend thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a candidate or cause never knowing if the contribution had any real impact. By contrast, the same amount of cash supporting a hyper-local news gathering effort could produce immediate and obvious results, and “could be a better return on investment for those who are alarmed by the state of our politics.”

proposal in Congress contemplates creation of a national endowment for local journalism, something akin to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the long-established national endowments for the arts and humanities. The effort might be limited to “non-profit” news organizations and supported by individual taxpayers choosing a “check off” on their tax returns in the same way that millions of American provide public funds for presidential elections.

There are many reasons for the troubled state of American democracy – toxic cable television shouting matches that feed on fear and division, bald faced lies and conspiracy theories elevated by candidates, and a demonizing of legitimate news organizations and their reporters as “enemies of the people.” By any measure, the drastic decline of local journalism in so many communities, and the companion inability to focus on real and important local issues has to be part of the cause, as well.

We need to get on with addressing this.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” It’s worth remembering in light of our fractured, tribal politics that Jefferson championed a free and critical press even as he was often viciously attacked in print by his political opponents.

“For most of American history, localism came naturally,” the Niskanen Center report says. “But that’s no longer the case in our age of national and international connectivity. And while much has been gained in this changed environment, that connection to the local that our political system takes as a given has been severely undermined. Recapturing that type of community connection would help America’s political institutions function as intended. And a robust local media landscape is a prerequisite for a reinvigorated localism.”

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