Politics, the media and “common ground”

Margaret Sullivan:

Ken Doctor saw it coming. A few years ago, the media analyst looked at the trend lines and predicted that by 2017 or so, American newsrooms would reach a shocking point.

“The halving of America’s daily newsrooms,” he called what he was seeing.

Last week, we found out that it’s true. A Pew Research study showed that between 2008 and last year, employment in newspaper newsrooms declined by an astonishing 45 percent. (And papers were already well down from their newsroom peak in the early 1990s, when their revenue lifeblood — print advertising — was still pumping strong.)

The dire numbers play out in ugly ways: Public officials aren’t held accountable, town budgets go unscrutinized, experienced journalists are working at Walmart, or not at all, instead of plying their much-needed trade in their communities.

One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.

And there’s another result that gets less attention:

In our terribly divided nation, we need the local newspaper to give us common information — an agreed-upon set of facts to argue about.

Last year when I visited Luzerne County in Pennsylvania to talk to people about their media habits, I was most struck by one thing: The allegiance to local news outlets — the two competing papers in Wilkes-Barre, and the popular ABC affiliate, WNEP, or Channel 16 as everyone called it.

The most reasonable people I talked to, no matter whom they had voted for, were regular readers of the local papers and regular watchers of the local news. (The county was one of those critical places that had voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and flipped red to Trump in 2016.)

By contrast, those residents who got news only from Facebook or from cable news were deep in their own echo chambers and couldn’t seem to hear anything else.

Last week, President Trump, at his rally in Wilkes-Barre, again trashed the national media — to the crowd’s delight. But I would guess that many of the attendees would give a pass to their local media sources.

After all, the reporters and editors for those news outlets might send their kids to the same schools, shop at the same Dollar General, fill up their gas tanks at the same Sheetz.

When he made his prediction in 2015, Ken Doctor noted that the largest and the smallest of the nation’s newspapers seemed to have some immunity.

Tiny papers have little competition, an enduring connection with their towns, and thus still are able to attract advertising and reader loyalty. The largest of the papers — including the New York Times and The Washington Post — are finding new ways to support themselves with a combination of digital ad dollars and subscriptions, among other revenue sources.

But the regional papers, such as the Denver Post, have taken the worst hits. And to make matters worse, many are owned by hedge funds that couldn’t care less about journalism. They are only interested in bleeding the papers dry of whatever remaining profits they can produce with ever-shrinking staffs.

“Will hitting the halving point finally send a signal of news emergency?” Doctor asked. And he answered himself: “Probably not. Who would send it? Who would receive it? What does any citizen/reader feel he or she can really do about it?”

That’s the rub. What’s more, as papers decline, there’s less reason to subscribe because coverage isn’t what it used to be.

“We’ve had to make some tough decisions,” Ken Tingley, editor of the Glens Falls Post-Star, a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily in the Adirondacks region of New York, told me recently. With his staff down by about half, he has pulled in the news coverage from a far-flung region to concentrate on just the metro area.

What he worries about most, Tingley said, is that there’s not much of a career ahead for the young reporters on his staff.

“Where are they going to go?” he said, when bigger metro dailies keep shedding reporters like so many autumn leaves. (One recent example: The New York Daily News, which halved its newsroom.)

To be sure, the picture isn’t entirely bleak: Nonprofit news organizations spring up, relying on grants and membership; organizations such as Report for America help fill the gaps at shrunken news organizations; and in Denver, a new outfit called Civil is funding an alternative to the decimated Post with the digital Colorado Sun, and hopes to produce many more like it. Some regional papers have been bought by well-meaning philanthropists.

But you can’t argue with the numbers, or the crisis.

Yes, the emergency signal has gone out, if too faintly, and there is a response.

But I’m afraid it won’t be nearly enough to make up for what’s lost. And in a deeply divided America, that’s a tragedy.

After 30 years in journalism, I can conclude that, first, reporters shouldn’t work for publicly traded media companies, since they are driven by the imperative of maximizing shareholder returns. That’s good if you’re a shareholder. (Which, at a minimum through 401K accounts, at least half of U.S. families are.) It’s not so good if you work there and the company has a bad quarter. (As you know, I write from experience about this.)

Beyond that, some decry the increasing chain ownership of media outlets. That, however, is not a blanket statement one can really make. There are good media companies and bad media companies, and there are good family-owned media outlets and there are bad family-owned media outlets.

To believe that the media is or should be immune to the laws of economics is naive. The medias biggest financial problem is increased competition for its top source of revenue, advertising. When profit margins shrink or disappear, business decisions are made.

The biggest problem with this, though, is the assumption there is common ground in our society today. Where? In what? And why is it the media’s job to reinforce it? The media is supposed to report the news, without fear or favor, and without a reporters opinion.

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