School board and city council meetings are going uncovered. Overstretched reporters receive promising tips about stories but have no time to follow up. Newspapers publish fewer pages or less frequently or, in hundreds of cases across the country, are shuttered completely.
All of this has added up to a crisis in local news coverage in the United States that has frayed communities and left many Americans woefully uninformed, according to a report by PEN America released on Wednesday.
“A vibrant, responsive democracy requires enlightened citizens, and without forceful local reporting they are kept in the dark,” the report said. “At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and more elusive than ever.”
The report, “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions,” paints a grim picture of the state of local news in every region of the country. The prelude is familiar to journalists: As print advertising revenue has plummeted, thousands of newspapers have been forced to cut costs, reduce their staffs or otherwise close.
And while the disruption has hampered the ability of newsrooms to fully cover communities, it also has damaged political and civic life in the United States, the report says, leaving many people without access to crucial information about where they live.
“That first draft of history is not being written — it has completely disappeared,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a nonprofit organization that celebrates literature and free expression. “That’s what is so chilling about this crisis.”
The authors of the report spoke to dozens of journalists, elected officials and activists, who described how cutbacks in local newsrooms have left communities in the dark and have failed to keep public and corporate officials accountable.
In 2017, when work on the PEN project began, researchers planned to call it “News Deserts,” examining pockets of the country where local news was scarce. But the more research the group did, the more it realized that the original scope was inadequate: Since 2004, more than 1,800 local print outlets have shuttered in the United States, and at least 200 counties have no newspaper at all.
“This was a national crisis,” Ms. Nossel said. “This was not about a few isolated areas that were drying up.”
Many Americans are completely unaware that local news is suffering. According to a Pew survey this year, 71 percent of Americans believe that their local news outlets are doing well financially. But, according to that report, only 14 percent say they have paid for or donated money to a local news source in the past year.
“They don’t realize that their local news outlet is under threat,” said Viktorya Vilk, manager of special projects for PEN, who was one of the report’s authors.
The decline of local news outlets threatens the reporting on public health crises in places like Flint, Mich., where residents voiced concern about the quality of their water to The Flint Journal long before the national media reported on the issue.
In Denver, a diminished local news presence — after the closure of The Rocky Mountain News and the shrunken Denver Post — has contributed to civic disengagement, one case study in the report says. Kevin Flynn, a former journalist turned City Council member, lamented the large number of people who seemed to be unaware of local elections, and the relative handful of reporters covering a quickly growing city. “It feels like we could all be getting away with murder right now,” Mr. Flynn said of public officials.
In some communities, a dearth of local news was associated with a population that was less aware of politics.
“Voting and consuming news — those things go hand in hand,” said Tom Huang, assistant managing editor of The Dallas Morning News.
First: You cannot make people vote, because you cannot make people care. Second: This may be the media’s fault for excessive coverage of horse-race politics and less What Does This Mean to You reporting of government, which is not politics.
One case study in the report shared the experience of Greg Barnes, who took a buyout in 2018 after three decades at The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina.
Toward the end of his time at the paper, the report said, “his job had essentially been filling holes for the rapidly diminishing staff instead of doing the sprawling investigations that had been his trademark.”
The report offers several solutions: It cites newer, digitally focused outlets like Chalkbeat, an online organization that focuses on education; Outlier, based in Detroit; and Block Club Chicago as examples of small but vibrant news sources that have stepped into the void.
But a more comprehensive solution is required, the report suggests, including private donations and expansions of public funding.
The irony of the “private donations” suggestion is that that is the model that has been used by a longstanding publication for decades — National Review.
The “public funding” proposal is a horrible idea. If government is funding it, government will say what is in it and what is not in it. An attempt at that was recently made in Lafayette County, where unidentified members of the County Board tried to get the board to pass a resolution that would have required only an official release of the results of a three-county groundwater study, with penalties against county supervisors who refused to sing from that hymnal, and prosecuted reporters for daring to be reporters.
A retired ink-stained wretch posted that someone where she lives asked why they needed a newspaper since the city has a website and radio station. She asked whether the city would self-report budget problems, or the school district would self-report bad test scores. Take a wild guess.
One thing conservatives should realize is that journalists properly doing their jobs discover governmental financial malfeasance. A 2018 study found that communities without newspapers paid more to bond for municipal projects:
Cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals, say researchers who tracked the decline of local news outlets between 1996 and 2015.
Disruptions in local news coverage are soon followed by higher long-term borrowing costs for cities. Costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after the closure of a local newspaper—a finding that can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions, the authors say. Those civic watchdogs make a difference to the bottom line.
Dan Kennedy blames Big Business:
There are two elephants in the room that are threatening to destroy local news.
One, technological disruption, is widely understood: the internet has undermined the value of advertising and driven it to Craigslist, Facebook and Google, thus eliminating most of the revenues that used to pay for journalism.
But the other, corporate greed, is too often regarded as an effect rather than as a cause. The standard argument is that chain owners moved in to suck the last few drops of blood out of local newspapers because no one else wanted them. In fact, the opposite is the case. Ownership by hedge funds and publicly traded corporations has squeezed newspapers that might otherwise be holding their own and deprived them of the runway they need to invest in the future.
The last several weeks have been brutal for local newspapers. GateHouse Media and Gannett merged (the new company is known simply as Gannett), a union of two bottom-feeding chains that are reported to be considering at least another $400 million in cuts. MediaNews Group, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, acquired a 32% share of the Tribune newspapers. McClatchy may be moving toward bankruptcy.
And yet, here and there, independent community news projects are thriving. Free of the debt that must be taken on to build a chain and of the need to ship revenues to their corporate overlords, the indies — both for-profit and nonprofit — are meeting the information needs of their communities.
The narrative about the death of local journalism is an easy one to grasp, because the tale of technological disruption used to explain it has quite a bit of truth to it, as Lehigh University journalism professor Jeremy Littau wrote in a widely quoted Twitter thread over the weekend. The narrative of the ongoing vitality of local journalism doesn’t get heard often enough because it’s harder to wrap your arms around. It’s happening here and there, with different approaches and without a one-size-fits-all solution.
As such, examples are necessarily anecdotal — and you know the saying that anecdotes aren’t data. Still, good things are happening at the grassroots. For instance:
• The small daily newspaper where I worked for my first 10 years out of college, The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, is still owned by the founding Haggerty family and still providing decent coverage of the communities it serves. The paper is smaller than it used to be, but it’s doing far better work than a typical chain-owned paper.
• Several months ago I had an opportunity to attend the fall conference of the New York Press Association, which comprises upstate independent publishers. Those folks told me that though business was more challenging than ever, their papers were doing reasonably well.
• New Haven, Connecticut, may enjoy the best coverage of any medium-sized city in the country. Why? One veteran journalist, Paul Bass, had the vision to create the nonprofit, online-only New Haven Independent, supported by grants and donations, and still thriving 14 years after its founding. (The Independent is the main subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City.”)
• For-profit digital news sites are doing well in some places, too. Among them: The Batavian, in Western New York, also profiled in “The Wired City.” Overall, there are enough for-profit and nonprofit sites that they have their own trade organization, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers. No, their numbers are too small to offset the overall decline. But the opportunity is out there for entrepreneurial-minded journalists. The chains, sadly, are creating more opportunities every day.
• Among the regions I reported on in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” was Burlington, Vermont, whose daily, the Burlington Free Press, had been decimated by Gannett. What happened? An excellent, for-profit alternative weekly, Seven Days, bolstered its online news coverage. Two nonprofit news organizations, Vermont Public Radio and VT Digger, beefed up their local coverage as well.
• In Western Massachusetts, the once-great Berkshire Eagle is being rebuilt by local owners who bought it from MediaNews Group several years ago. That could provide a roadmap for other communities — at some point, chain owners will no longer be able to keep cutting their way to profits and will presumably be looking for a way out.
• Regional newspapers are experimenting with new forms of ownership. The Salt Lake Tribune recently won IRS approval to become a nonprofit organization. The Philadelphia Inquirer, though still a for-profit, is now owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Foundation. Neither of these moves guarantees salvation. But it has bought them time to shift to a new business model built less on advertising and more on support from their readers.
• Speaking of which: It’s been nearly a year since The Boston Globe announced it had achieved profitability despite continuing to employ a newsroom far larger than any chain owner would tolerate.
No, there is little hope of returning to the old days. Newspapers will never be as richly staffed as they were before the early 2000s, when the internet began to take a toll on revenues. Papers will continue to die. Nonprofits will have to become an increasingly important part of the mix.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote the other day that “the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.”
She’s right. But in all too many instances, local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered. The solution, if there is to be one, has to start with getting the corporate chains out of the way and paving a path for a new generation of independent publishers.
I wonder how Kennedy feels about the corporations that donate to his employer, Boston public radio, or about how Kennedy feels about his retirement accounts, which most likely are made up of those evil corporations. It’s sort of like “A Few Good Men,” where Col. Jessup notes the dichotomy of liking the ends (growing stock) but not the means (businesses making business decisions).
However, I’m not going to defend bad media companies, such as Gannett, whose newspapers, at least in Wisconsin, are no one’s idea of good journalism. With the exception of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, if you’ve seen one Gannett Wisconsin newspaper, you’ve seen all of them (the Oshkosh Northwestern, Fond du Lac Reporter, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter and Sheboygan Press might as well be one newspaper, and that also counts for the Wausau Daily Herald, Stevens Point Journal, Marshfield News Herald and Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune), and you’ve read the same news (or lack thereof) in them.
One thing these stories and opinions universally lack is what educators like to call self-reflection, as if the media is absolutely blameless in any sense for the demise of individual media outlets. It’s hard to believe people in the media can’t grasp that the complaints, which are often not unfounded, of media bias by people who generally do in fact follow the news would have consequences that would affect media employees — like canceling subscriptions and ads, which means less money coming in, which means cuts in costs.
Beyond media bias is the simple question of whether or not a media outlet serves its readers, listeners or viewers anymore. Newspapers that reduce their news hole lose readers, which reduces revenue, which makes them reduce their news hole more, which loses readers … you get the picture.
One way to not serve your audience is to not be like your audience. I’ve written here previously about how many reporters lack any of five life features that are most common with average Wisconsinites — married parents who own a house, go to church and own at least one gun.
I don’t know what the answers are, but I see some answers that are the wrong answers.