Media cause and government effect

Robert Gebelhoff of and in the Washington Post:

Nowadays, if you want to be an incompetent — or even corrupt — elected official, there’s a place for you to work where the risk of facing recourse is fast getting smaller: local government.

That’s because so few people are paying attention. Not only has voter participation in local elections fallen to dangerously low levels, but the health of local newspapers, traditional watchdogs for the most direct and abundant form of government in the United States, has also been deteriorating.

This is a crisis for democracy in general. But politically speaking, the Republican Party — yes, the same party whose leader derides the media as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”  — should be particularly alarmed. Because if conservatives are concerned about keeping government as efficient and local as possible, they need the hundreds of local newspapers to make the system work across the country.

Researchers have illuminated a sort of symbiotic relationship between local papers and the governments they cover. The governments provide papers with content to fill their pages; the papers, in turn, offer a healthy level accountability and make information more accessible among the electorate. If a newspaper is suddenly forced to close due to economic forces — for example, if competition from online advertising sites suddenly dries up its revenue — the government, too, becomes sick.

This isn’t just theoretical; it translates to hard dollars and cents, as illustrated by a new paper, presented this week at the Brookings Institution’s Municipal Finance Conference.

The paper, which is in the process of being peer-reviewed, looked at newspaper closures between 1996 and 2015 and found that once a newspaper goes under, it becomes more expensive in the long run for its local government to borrow money. In the three years following a closure, the study found, municipal borrowing costs for counties where newspapers closed increased by .05 to .11 percentage points. That might not sound like a lot, but when we’re talking about borrowing millions of dollars, it’s nothing to sneeze at.

Authors of the paper theorize that this is the result of less information being publicly available, resulting in poorer-quality governance. And as a result, local investors in such communities are more likely to see municipal bonds as risky, driving up interest rates.

Before you say “correlation is not causation,” consider the strong evidence that the link between newspaper closures and higher borrowing costs is causal. First, the authors compared counties where newspapers closed to neighboring counties with operating newspapers. On average, the counties where newspapers folded had bond yields that were .07 percentage points higher.

The effect was also dependent on the number of papers covering a government. Counties with multiple papers saw no significant effect if one of their papers went under. But counties with only one paper that closed did.

In fact, the authors were able to track this effect on rising borrowing costs with the expansion of Craigslist. The advertising website, which drained local newspapers of revenue from classified ads, was gradually rolled out across the country over time. They found that Craigslist-induced newspaper closures increased municipal bond yields by .04 to .06 percentage points.

All of this is to say that the health of local newspapers is intensely connected with government efficiency. And it’s not just bond markets. Newspaper closures are also linked to rising wages for government employees and to growing numbers of government employees per capita in a county. Other research shows that elected officials from areas with little local media coverage are less responsive to their constituents.

For conservatives who say they want as much government responsibility allocated to state and local governments as possible, these trends should be terrifying. We can only support a federalist political system if it is well oiled at each level, and local reporting is an invaluable grease for the machine to function.

There’s no easy solution to the decline of local newspapers. Market forces are fundamentally changing the media landscape, and it remains to be seen what will happen to small outlets that can’t so easily transition online. But one thing is for sure: The decline of the local free press is a threat to the decentralized system of government envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

That is an interesting study conclusion if it’s correct.

That study was reported last week. Earlier this week came this news reported by the New York Times:

The meeting lasted less than a minute. By the time it was over, reporters and editors at The Daily News, the brawny New York tabloid that was once the largest-circulation paper in the country, learned that the newsroom staff would be cut in half and that its editor in chief was out of a job.

In the hours that followed, journalists in various departments, from sports to metro, received formal notification that they had been laid off by Tronc, the media company based in Chicago that bought the paper last year.

“People were crying and hugging each other,” said Scott Widener, a researcher who had worked at The News since 1990. “I’ve dodged a lot bullets over the years, and I just couldn’t dodge this one.”

In its heyday, The News was a staple publication of the city’s working class, an elbows-out tabloid that thrived when it dug into crime and corruption. It served as a model for The Daily Planet, the paper that counted Clark Kent and Lois Lane among its reporters, and for the scrappy tabloid depicted in the 1994 movie “The Paper.”

With Tronc’s firing of more than 40 newsroom employees — including 25 of 34 sports journalists and most of the photo department — The News joins the ranks of walking-wounded papers at a time when readers have gravitated toward the quick-hit convenience of digital media.

Under Jim Rich, the editor who lost his job on Monday, The News positioned itself as an unapologetically liberal counterpuncher to Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Mr. Rich, who declined to comment for this article, transformed the front page — “the wood,” in tabloid parlance — into a venue for criticizing and often ridiculing President Trump.

Last Tuesday, The News commemorated the president’s appearance with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, Finland, with the headline “Open Treason.” Beneath the bold black letters was a cartoon of Mr. Trump holding hands with a shirtless Mr. Putin; with his other hand, Mr. Trump was firing a pistol at Uncle Sam’s head.

Hmmm. Ridiculing Trump. How has that worked out?

Tronc announced on Monday that Mr. Rich’s replacement would be Robert York, a media executive who has spent most of his career in San Diego. In 2016, Tronc named Mr. York the editor and publisher of The Morning Call, a newspaper owned by the company in Allentown, Pa.

The layoff did not come out of nowhere. The News has lost millions of dollars as it struggled to replace the revenue once reliably provided by the advertisements that fattened its papers and the readers whose morning routines included a stop at the newsstand.

“The web kind of changed the DNA of every paper,” said Joel Siegel, a former managing editor at The News who is now managing editor of the cable news channel NY1.

Grant Whitmore, an executive at Tronc, presided over the brief meeting, which took place shortly after 9 a.m. in the paper’s seventh-floor newsroom in Lower Manhattan. About 50 staff members were in attendance, a group that did not include Mr. Rich or Kristen Lee, the managing editor, who was also laid off.

Afterward, human resources workers delivered the bad news to employees, including the sports columnist John Harper, the arts reporter Joe Dziemianowicz and the City Hall reporter Erin Durkin.

“I firmly believe that today’s actions will position The Daily News for growth in the years ahead,” Mr. Whitmore said in a memo to the remaining staff members at the end of the day, “and I look forward to working with this group to capture the opportunities in front of us.” He added that Tronc remained “committed to print.” …

It is hard to fathom what the paper’s next issues will look like, given that the newsroom had shrunk significantly under its previous owner, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the New York real estate developer and media mogul who bought the paper out of bankruptcy in 1993.

Ambitious projects like the series on New York Police Department’s abuse of eviction rules — for which The News shared a Pulitzer Prize with ProPublica in 2017 — would seem difficult to pull off with an even smaller staff. Sarah Ryley, the editor of the series, who left The News last year, said it had taken three years to complete because reporters and editors were stretched thin after the layoffs under Mr. Zuckerman.

“You used to go into the office and feel the energy,” said Frank Isola, a sports columnist at The News for nearly 25 years, who was among those laid off on Monday. “I’ve probably been in the office, I would say, maybe three times in the last three years. People tell me: ‘Don’t come in. It’s depressing.’”

Since Tronc bought the ailing tabloid from Mr. Zuckerman in September 2017 — for a reported $1; yes, one dollar — the company has been working to transform The News into something more digital.

“But we have not gone far enough,” the company said in a memo to the staff that announced its decision to reduce “the size of the editorial team by approximately 50 percent” and to shift its focus to breaking news.

Some News employees started packing last week, after the media newsletter Study Hall reported that the company planned to lay off a large portion of the staff.

Although daily print circulation had sunk to roughly 200,000, Mr. Rich breathed new life into the paper. During two stints as editor — a 13-month run that ended in 2016, and an encore that began in January — he regularly published front pages that captured the staccato energy of social media.

He was typically combative in a Twitter post on Monday: “If you hate democracy and think local governments should operate unchecked and in the dark, then today is a good day for you,” he wrote. Mr. Rich also dropped the Daily News affiliation from his Twitter bio. “Just a guy sitting at home watching journalism being choked into extinction,” it reads.

The News had a digital reach of 23 million, but it wasn’t enough. The challenge of wringing profits from page views has eluded much of the industry, and the paper proved unable to end its losing streak. According to securities filings, it lost $23.6 million in 2016. Since then, its business has continued to suffer.

In naming Mr. York as the replacement for Mr. Rich, Tronc is following a playbook that did not have success at The Los Angeles Times, when, in similar fashion, it gave the job of top editor to an outsider with a business background.

Lewis D’Vorkin, an executive at Forbes Media who specialized in broadening the company’s native-advertising offerings, was Tronc’s choice for the Los Angeles job. The newsroom greeted his appointment with skepticism, and Mr. D’Vorkin lasted two months in the role. After tensions between the newsroom employees and Tronc continued, the company sold the paper to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong in February for $500 million.

The longtime home of the columnists Jimmy Breslin, Dick Young and Liz Smith and the cartoonist Bill Gallo, The News reveled in its role as the voice of the average citizen. Etched into the stone above the entrance of its former home, the Daily News Building on East 42nd Street, is a phrase attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must have loved the common man, he made so many of them.”

“You used to see everybody reading the newspaper on the subway,” said Michael Daly, a onetime News columnist who now writes for The Daily Beast. “The News was the right size. It was the perfect size for the biggest city.”

“You used to see everybody reading the newspaper on the subway,” said Michael Daly, a onetime News columnist who now writes for The Daily Beast. “The News was the right size. It was the perfect size for the biggest city.”

One of its most famous headlines — “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” from 1975 — summed up President Gerald R. Ford’s refusal to send federal aid to a city on the verge of bankruptcy. Ford later said the headline had played a role in his losing the 1976 presidential election.

The News, winner of 11 Pulitzers in its 99-year history, underwent a crisis when 10 unions walked off the job in 1990. The Tribune Company, its owner since its founding in 1919, threw the paper into bankruptcy at the end of the long strike — and the man who rescued it, the British mogul Robert Maxwell, became tabloid fodder himself when his body was found floating near his yacht soon after he entered the New York media fray.

Mr. Zuckerman took control in 1993, but times were hard, even then, well before digital media threatened the business model that had produced newspaper barons, star columnists and city reporters with steady paychecks. Before rolling out the first issue under his ownership, Mr. Zuckerman laid off 170 employees. It was a sign of layoffs to come, as a bustling newsroom morphed into a workplace populated with a bare-bones staff of fewer than 100 on his watch.

You will not believe! what the Washington Examiner reports what happened next:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said he would put state resources behind the New York Daily News if it will help curb mass layoffs that reportedly just hit the left-leaning tabloid’s newsroom.

Cuomo said in a statement Monday that the state “stands ready to help” after the New York Times reported that the tabloid’s reporting staff would be reduced by about half.

“The Daily News, now owned by Tronc, Inc., is apparently firing a major portion of their reporting staff,” he said. “This will undoubtedly devastate many households and hurt an important New York institution and one of our nation’s journalism giants. These layoffs were made without notifying the state or asking for assistance.”

I was unaware that Mario Cuomo had bailed out the Post. That was a horrible idea, and bailing out a media outlet with government money is a hideous idea.

Little Cuomo’s tweet provoked these responses:

  • Governor offers to rescue a friendly media outlet. Doesn’t that muddy the concept of a free press?
  • I guess he thinks it’s a state-run media outlet and the state will decide whether to lay people off or use taxpayer money to prop up a failing political propaganda machine.
  • So former Gov Mario Cuomo “came to the aid of the New York Post when it was facing difficult financial times.” Huh. I’m SURE that didn’t affect their objectivity at all when it came to covering Cuomo, his admin, or Democrats in general.
  • You want state-run news? This is how you get state-run news. Your ideals are not ideals if you can’t apply them across the board (or aisle); they’re just additions to the hypocrisy of which there’s already enough.
  • government money mixing with the media–what could possibly go wrong?



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