Category: US business

News from my line of work

The New York Times:

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.

A big problem in this is that many people assume “the media” is a big monolith of groupthink. I have been in the media for more than half of my life. Were I hired at the New York Times, do you think my worldview would be the same as everyone else’s there? Stereotyping is seldom useful.

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.

Great moments in PR

Jonathan V. Last writes on …

So . . .
That’s not a joke I’m Ron Burgundy?
[Monday] the government of South Dakota announced their anti-meth campaign, the slogan of which is, “Meth. We’re on it.”
This is a real thing that people spent money on. $450,000.
The internet is, as you might imagine, highly amused.
I mean, it’s not “Just Say No.”
Or, “This is your brain on drugs.”
Or, “From you, dad. I learned it from watching you.”
And on first glance this seems destined to be one of those advertising case studies where future scholars ask, “So, they wanted an anti-drug slogan and they settled on Look at me I’m on drugs!?!
And the designers were so committed that they even trademarked the thing. (That “TM” is like a splinter in my eye. Make it stop.)
But here’s the thing: Isn’t this campaign also kind of genius?
Let’s stipulate that you can’t hang a value on “awareness.” Maybe it’s worthless. Maybe it’s really important. I don’t know.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that “awareness” is a valid goal and evaluate this logo purely on how it achieves that goal.
Mission: Accomplished.
I could think of a dozen ways to stand up an anti-meth campaign that you would forget in an hour.
But “Meth. We’re on it.” is never going away. People will goof on it for a generation. There will be parodies. T-shirts. Stickers. Every middle schooler in South Dakota will, some day when they’re old, laugh with their buddies about that crazy “Meth. We’re on it.” thing.
I mean, if they don’t die from meth.
The goal of a piece of design like this is to hit people so hard that they have to take notice, that they talk about the concept, that they remember it and it resonates in the culture over time.
I would say that the South Dakota meth campaign achieves all of that.
Good for them.

A local example would be in the late 20th century, when what Wisconsin Energy, which formerly was Wisconsin Natural (Gas) and Wisconsin Electric (I know, because I wrote monthly checks), decided to call itself WE Energies, which Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes dubbed “WEnergies.” (Pronounced “wiener-jeez.”)

This is sort of a corollary to an incredibly annoying commercial that isn’t annoying merely from overbroadcast, but because of a feature that sets your teeth on edge. Some would say that’s good because you remember the ad. It’s not good, however, if you refuse to patronize the business because of their bad ads. (That would be me.)

Bad business decisions happen when there is no skeptic in the room, someone to point out how the brilliant idea could go horribly wrong.

 

Better than Obamacare in one move

CNN:

In a historic move, President Donald Trump announced Friday that hospitals will be required to disclose the rates they privately negotiate with insurers.

Part of a larger transparency push aimed at reducing health care costs, the controversial requirement has already raised the ire of the powerful industry. Four hospital groups quickly promised to file a legal challenge, arguing the rule exceeds the administration’s authority.
The rule is the latest in a series of steps the administration has taken to show what Trump is doing to lower health care costs — a key concern among Americans and one of his main promises as he heads into the 2020 campaign.

Under the final rule, which stems from an executive order Trump issued this summer, hospitals will have to make public by 2021 the rates they negotiate with insurers and the amounts they are willing to accept in cash for an item or service. In addition, they must provide this information in an online, searchable way for 300 common services, such as X-rays, outpatient visits, Cesarean deliveries and lab tests.

Hospitals that don’t comply will face a civil penalty of up to $300 a day.

Also, the administration released a proposed rule that would require insurers to provide consumers with estimates of their out-of-pocket costs for all health care services through an online tool. Carriers would have to disclose their negotiated rates for in-network providers as well as the allowed amounts paid for out-of-network providers. This proposal was prompted by feedback that consumers are more interested in what they are on the hook for based on their insurance plans’ deductibles and copays or coinsurance.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said this announcement may be “a more significant improvement to American health care markets than any other single thing the Trump administration has done.”

“American patients have been at the mercy of a shadowy system with little access to the information they need to make decisions about their own care,” Azar said. “This shadowy system has to change.”

The secretary added that he believes the changes will survive any legal challenges from hospitals.

Negotiated rates are closely guarded secrets, though they are eventually revealed to patients when they receive explanations of benefits from their insurers. That information should be available before the person receives care, administration officials say.

The administration argues that increasing price transparency will lead to a more competitive marketplace.

 

First Amendment self-sabotage

Charles Lipson:

Because our country is so deeply split and so distrustful of its basic institutions, it needs solid, dispassionate reporting now more than ever. We are not getting it.

Americans know this, and we’re angry about it. Polls show we don’t trust the media any more than we trust Congress, the president, universities, or big business. And we don’t trust them at all. That’s deeply troubling since those institutions should be the secure foundations of our public life. Only one is still trusted by more than half the population — the military. Our men and women in uniform certainly deserve our trust and respect, but it’s grim news for a democracy when only the armed forces merit it.

The media has added to this sulfurous climate of distrust and division. Take the country’s most important newspaper, the New York Times. After badly misjudging voter sentiment during the 2016 election, the Times publicly promised to reevaluate its biases, take occasional trips across the Hudson, and try harder. That lasted about a week.

The Times soon joined every other media organization in the race to discredit Donald Trump’s election, imply it was the product of Russian interference, and paint him as an illegitimate intruder in the White House. Although they were right to investigate Russian interference, they were wrong to pump up a thinly based conspiracy story that served their political aims.

Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation showed the Russians did interfere, primarily to create chaos and assist Trump. The special prosecutor documented multiple Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, a troubling revelation for any fair-minded American. But the report did not show any impact on the election outcome or charge any Americans with aiding the Russians. Asked point-blank if the president had not been charged because he was in office, Mueller mumbled a befuddled answer (like much of his testimony) and eventually said “no.”

Mueller’s report left gaping holes. It made no effort to find out why the CIA and FBI began investigating Trump and his campaign in the first place, whether that was warranted, why a counterintelligence investigation became a criminal one, or why candidate Trump was never warned about Russia’s malicious efforts. The report never addressed whether James Comey’s FBI was secretly targeting Trump for partisan or illicit purposes or how it justified this unprecedented action. Ultimately, Mueller’s report was a dud, and his testimony a disappointment for those alleging a vast, treasonous conspiracy.

Did the proprietors of the Fourth Estate learn their lesson? No, siree. Like all true believers who have been thwarted, they have redoubled their efforts, reinforcing the impeachment drive by House Democrats. Even as Trump wrongly smears all news as “fake,” damaging our country (as well as his targets), those newspapers, online outlets, and cable channels are doing their best to prove him right. They have embraced their new role as active partisans, while still denying it. Who trusts their denials?

This media sinkhole was exposed once again after U.S. forces launched a daring raid that killed ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Washington Post beclowned itself with a headline, since changed, that depicted the murderous terrorist and serial rapist as “an austere religious scholar.” The Twitter universe responded with parodies. Bonnie and Clyde were called “wealth re-distributors in the banking sector,” John Wilkes Booth “a noted thespian and member of a prominent theatrical family.” My favorite is Osama bin Laden, who was “killed in a home invasion.” Note that all of them are true, just as the Washington Post’s headline was. They are funny because, like the Post headline, they miss the point so egregiously.

How did CNN do? Not well, but thanks for asking. At 3 p.m. Eastern time, when I tuned in, the news channel’s editors had decided that al-Baghdadi’s death was not the top story. The day after the raid. Really? They led with two minor pieces, neither of them urgent, and then took a commercial break. Afterward, CNN turned to the al-Baghdadi story, but its main point was that it was far less important than killing Osama bin Laden. I agree, but what was troubling was how CNN essentially stage-whispered to its viewers, “Trust us, this story is not that important and certainly cannot compare with President Obama’s achievement.”

Burying important stories is as significant as misreporting them. Over the next few weeks, we will learn about a huge one the mainstream media has buried in a shallow grave for nearly three years. It deals with surveillance on members of the Trump campaign, based on warrants the FBI and Department of Justice gained from a secret court charged with counterintelligence investigations. DoJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz will report on his extensive probe of those FISA warrants and whether top FBI and DoJ officials committed fraud on the courts in obtaining them. We may learn who leaked classified materials, a crime we know happened repeatedly in 2016 and early 2017. We may learn about massive, illegal access to intelligence databases by outside contractors, who were spying on Americans without court permission. Expect criminal referrals. Expect indictments on related matters being investigated by U.S. Attorney John Durham, a highly respected, non-partisan professional. Did the CIA, which cannot spy on Americans, simply outsource the task to foreign counterparts? This is likely to be big and ugly.

Our country’s leading news organizations have done almost nothing to investigate these issues and far too little to report on them. When they do report, they editorialize to downplay them. If the worst allegations turn out to be true — and we simply don’t know yet — they will have missed the biggest story since Watergate. Worst of all, they will have missed it deliberately because they feared any investigation might aid a president they hated. That position should be reserved for the editorial pages. In the news sections, such distortion and willful blindness is an abdication of journalists’ responsibilities. Democracy dies in that kind of derangement.

Speaking of deranged, Nick Gillespie reports a different form of derangement:

If you need more proof that free expression is under serious and sustained attack, look no further than The Washington Post, that legendary and often self-congratulatory bastion of First Amendment support, which has just published an op-ed calling for hate speech laws because “on the Internet, truth is not optimized. On the Web, it’s not enough to battle falsehood with truth; the truth doesn’t always win.”

What’s even more disheartening is that the author is Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time, chairman of the National Constitution Center, and Obama-era State Department official whose soul-searching apparently began when challenged by diplomats from a part of the world notorious for particularly brutal forms of censorship. As a journalist, Stengel avers, he loved, loved, loved the First Amendment and its commitment to free speech. But then he got stumped by unnamed representatives of unnamed governments who asked banal questions:

Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?

Is he kidding? “Why would a country founded in large part on the Enlightenment values of free speech and religious freedom allow free speech and religious freedom?” doesn’t seem like a tough question to answer. He doesn’t name the countries his “most sophisticated Arab diplomats represented, so we need to fill that detail in. Let’s assume they were from Saudi Arabia, a country completely unworthy of emulation when it comes to respecting basic human rights and whose Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken responsibility for the brutal torture and murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. We allow the burning of the Koran for the same reasons we allow the burning of King James and St. Jerome Bibles, the desecration of the U.S. flag, and the potential libeling of elected officials: We believe that individuals have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With a few exceptions such as “fighting words,” “true threats,” and obscenity, we know that it’s better to allow more speech rather than less. Surprisingly, people get along better when they can more freely speak their minds. The search for “truth”—or at least consensus—benefits from free expression, too, as ideas and attitudes are subjected to examination from friends and foes alike. But the pragmatic answer is ultimately secondary to the expressive one: We allow free speech because no one, certainly not the government, has a right to curtail it.

As befits a man who helmed a legacy media outlet that is slowly being reduced to rubble like a statue of Ozymandias in the desert, Stengel is particularly distraught over “the Internet” and the “Web.” He implies that the “marketplace of ideas” worked well enough when John Milton and, a bit later, America’s founders pushed an unregulated press, but, well, times have changed.

On the Internet, truth is not optimized. On the Web, it’s not enough to battle falsehood with truth; the truth doesn’t always win. In the age of social media, the marketplace model doesn’t work. A 2016 Stanford study showed that 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and an actual news story. Only a quarter of high school students could tell the difference between an actual verified news site and one from a deceptive account designed to look like a real one.

If you’re basing the erosion of constitutional rights on the reading comprehension skills of middle schoolers, you’re doing it wrong. And by it, I mean journalism, constitutional analysis, politics, and just about everything else, too.

Stengel pivots from discussing truth in media to “hate speech,” a ridiculously expansive term he never defines with precision (he even writes, “there’s no agreed-upon definition of what hate speech actually is”). But because mass shooters such as Dylann Roof, Omar Mateen, and the El Paso shooter “were consumers of hate speech,” it’s time to chuck out hard-fought victories that allow individuals and groups to express themselves in words and pictures. Hate speech, laments Stengel, doesn’t just cause violence (though strangely, violence is declining even as social media is flourishing), it also

diminishes tolerance. It enables discrimination. Isn’t that, by definition, speech that undermines the values that the First Amendment was designed to protect: fairness, due process, equality before the law? Why shouldn’t the states experiment with their own version of hate speech statutes to penalize speech that deliberately insults people based on religion, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation?

All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting “thought that we hate,” but not speech that incites hate. It undermines the very values of a fair marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment is designed to protect.

A quick reading of the First Amendment would have reminded Stengel—the former chairman and CEO of the National Constitution Center, fer chrissakes!—that the First Amendment isn’t about limiting speech that bothers the sensibilities of people. It’s actually all about Congress not making laws that would create an official religion or restricting individual speech and freedom of the press; it also guarantees that we have the right of assembly and petition. The values it reflects involve pluralism and tolerance, not shutting down, regulating, or restricting speech that makers of “new guardrails” find offensive, annoying, or inconvenient.

If you grew up any time in the past 60 years or so, you’ve taken freedom of speech for granted. That’s due to a series of legal rulings that struck down the ability of elected officials to strangle speech they didn’t like, ranging from potentially libelous personal attacks to once-banned literary works as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Howl, and Ulysses, along with materials such as the Pentagon Papers and the rise of technology that made producing and consuming all sorts of texts, images, music, video, and other forms of creative expression vastly easier.

It’s incredibly dispiriting to see baby boomers like Stengel brush aside the incredible wins in free expression because of concerns about vaguely defined terms such as “hate speech.” He gives off a strong whiff of internet and Cold War paranoia—”Russian agents assumed fake identities, promulgated false narratives and spread lies on Twitter and Facebook, all protected by the First Amendment”—that seems widely shared by his generational peers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) is an increasingly strong presidential candidate who has vowed to regulate explicitly political speech, especially its online iterations …

Older boomers are syncing with millennials and younger Americans, who show a strong predilection to limiting “bad” speech (a 2015 Pew survey found 40 percent of millennials supported censoring “offensive statements about minorities”). These are not good developments, and neither is an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for an effective revocation of the First Amendment. Throw in bipartisan interest in regulating social media platforms as public utilities, the president’s interest in “opening up” the libel laws so he can more easily sue his critics, the rise of “cancel culture,” and we’re one Zippo lighter short of a good, old-fashioned book burning.

Anti-free speech during Free Speech Week

This is, according to the News Media Alliance, Free Speech Week.

(Which I found out too late to include that in the newspaper this week. Media companies and organizations are notorious for bad internal communication.)

David Chavern wrote last year:

Do you remember what it was like to not be able to get the answer to an elusive question as soon as you asked it? Like how long sea turtles live? Or how far away is the sun? Or the name of that actor from that one movie? Before the omni-present Google and smartphone, these answers were likely missing (or required a lot of work to find). So when these questions came up in the past, conversation would stop.

That’s because the language of America is our common understanding of the facts of the world. Knowledge is a type of social currency, allowing us to converse and tackle the problems we collectively face. Without it, no democratic system can continue to function.

These common understandings tie us together. They allow us to communicate effectively and work together. When they are absent or under stress, like they are at this moment in society, it may sometimes feel like we will never recover that common language. But journalists are out there every day on the front lines to uncover the facts and understandings that will allow us to find our way back to a more productive democracy where decisions can be made based on mutually agreed-upon facts.

To fortify and flourish, we need to protect free speech. Journalists must be able to do their jobs without fear of censorship so that readers have unfettered access to the facts. Free speech is our most important tool in challenging abuses of power. It was a team of journalists at the Indianapolis Star that broke the Larry Nassar scandal, leading to his imprisonment this year. It was journalists who revealed the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and journalists who dug into Donald Trump’s suspected tax schemes. We’ve witnessed these brave men and women go into storm surges, disasters and war zones to bring us the news.

Yet across the globe, we have also seen egregious attacks on the press. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was captured and murdered for practicing his profession; a shooter entered the Capital Gazette newsroom, killing five members of their staff; The Boston Globe received bomb threats – to name a few. So far, 43 journalists this year have been killed simply for reporting the news. These attacks, while unbelievably tragic in their own right, are also denying citizens their right to be informed. They are silencing the language of America.

This year during Free Speech Week, we must remember the sacrifices of these individuals and demand better protections for the Fourth Estate. The freedom of the press is a fundamental principle of the United States and one we must seek to protect.

The News Media Alliance has joined Reporters Without Borders and other organizations to encourage voters in the U.S. to ask their congressional candidates ahead of the midterm elections where they stand on press freedom. I urge you to speak with your elected officials and work to secure free speech and protections for journalists so that the language of America may thrive.

So what a great time (/sarcasm) for the Washington Free Beacon to report:

A majority of Americans believe the First Amendment should be rewritten and are willing to crack down on free speech, as well as the press, according to a new poll.

More than 60 percent of Americans agree on restricting speech in some way, while a slim majority, 51 percent, want to see the First Amendment rewritten to “reflect the cultural norms of today.” The Campaign for Free Speech, which conducted the survey, said the results “indicate free speech is under more threat than previously believed.”

“The findings are frankly extraordinary,” executive director Bob Lystad told the Washington Free Beacon. “Our free speech rights and our free press rights have evolved well over 200 years, and people now seem to be rethinking them.”

Of the 1,004 respondents, young people were the most likely to support curbing free expression and punishing those who engage in “hate speech.” Nearly 60 percent of Millennials—respondents between the ages of 21 and 38—agreed that the Constitution “goes too far in allowing hate speech in modern America” and should be rewritten, compared to 48 percent of Gen Xers and 47 percent of Baby Boomers. A majority of Millennials also supported laws that would make “hate speech” a crime—of those supporters, 54 percent said violators should face jail time.

American hostility to the First Amendment did not stop at speech. Many would also like to see a crackdown on the free press. Nearly 60 percent of respondents agreed that the “government should be able to take action against newspapers and TV stations that publish content that is biased, inflammatory, or false.” Of those respondents, 46 percent supported possible jail time.

The poll was released just two days after two University of Connecticut students were arrested for allegedly saying racial slurs in a viral video. The 21-year-old suspects were allegedly playing “a game in which they yelled vulgar words,” according to the police report. Lystad said such incidents and the rise of social media may be behind the increased willingness of Americans to curb speech rights.

“I think [our findings] are fueled in large part because of a rise of hate speech, but traditionally, hate speech is protected in the First Amendment,” Lystad said. “The Supreme Court has upheld that principle time and time again.”

Lystad launched the Campaign for Free Speech to advocate for preserving free and open dialogue in America. The group emphasizes that hate speech should be denounced, but does not think censorship is the answer. The group plans to push back against efforts to restrict speech at the local, state, and federal levels.

“Hate speech should be condemned, but legally, the answer to speech we don’t like is more speech, not censorship,” he said. “Our primary focus is education, and to help people better understand the First Amendment, free speech, free press, and why it’s so vital to our democracy.”

If that poll is accurate, it proves that a majority of Americans (that is, those who support restrictions on free speech) are idiots who should start restricting free speech by shutting the hell up. I will not. Ever.

 

Bad solutions to questionable problems

PJ Media reports that Andrew Yang is still a Democratic vice presidential candidate:

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate, referred to job loss in the journalism field as a “tragedy” in America and proposed investing “public resources” to help support the news business.

Past studies have shown journalism to be among the worst career choices based on average annual income.

Now they tell me.

“Now you have all these measurements attached to any piece of journalism that you produce that did not exist a generation ago. It’s like, ‘how did that piece perform? How many clicks did it get?’ And the natural incentives are for you to become a little bit more aggressive and a little bit more sensationalist with the headline or the angle,” Yang said during a newsmakers event at the National Press Club on Monday.

“And that’s just the way the industry is unfolding because the almighty market is pulling all the strings so if you want to change that in communities you have to actually put some public resources to work,” he added.

Yang noted that he is personally familiar with the struggles of working journalists and aspiring journalists so he is “passionate” about addressing the challenges facing the industry.

“You all do great work. We need to make it so you can do your jobs without fearing getting fired the next day because your stuff didn’t get enough traffic,” Yang said.

Yang said American society should “find a way to support local journalism” even if the free market isn’t supporting its existence.

“If you believe in democracy you have to believe in journalism, particularly at the local level — over 1,200 local newspapers have gone out of business in the last number of years and we all know why. They used to have classified ads and revenue from those ads and now those ads went to the cloud and Craigslist and they didn’t have a new source of revenue to replace it,” he said.

“Studies have shown if you lose your local newspaper, voting becomes more polarized because you don’t know what’s going on in your town anymore and so you just vote along party lines and you have lower levels of government accountability as a result,” he added.

Yang continued, “So that is why I proposed a local journalism fund that would help create cooperative ownership business models and in some cases partner with philanthropy to help create sustainable models of journalism in communities around the country.”

Yang also said the “problem right now is if you are a newspaper, it’s not enough for you to break even. You have to make enough money to keep your shareholders happy and in some cases, those shareholders are private equity firms and hedge funders that bought your paper and then consolidated them.”

According to Yang’s campaign website, the $1 billion fund would operate “out of the FCC” and “make grants to companies, non-profits, and local governments and libraries to help local newspapers, periodicals and websites transition to sustainability in a new era.”

“It’s that or let local journalism die, which I don’t think anyone is in favor of,” Yang said on Monday.

Having government fund the media is absolutely, positively the wrong answer. Then newspapers will be reporting what the government wants them to report, of which we have far too much already.

This, however, is not Yang’s only bad idea, as Graham Piro reports:

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said the United States may have to eliminate private car ownership to combat climate change during MSNBC’s climate forum at Georgetown University Thursday morning.

He told MSNBC host Ali Velshi that “we might not own our own cars” by 2050 to wean the United States economy off of fossil fuels, describing private car ownership as “really inefficient and bad for the environment.” Privately owned cars would be replaced by a “constant roving fleet of electric cars.”

A video posted by the GOP War Room shows Velshi asking Yang what measures he sees the world taking to fight climate change by 2050.

“You have this ability to envision the future, right, with your proposals on universal basic income. You’ve played the whole chess game out and you see what it looks like on the other end. Play the chess game out on climate change,” Velshi said. “What does the world look like to you in 2050? What physically do you think we will do differently than we do today that will result in us fighting climate change?”

“Well I mentioned before that we might not own our own cars. Our current car ownership and usage model is really inefficient and bad for the environment,” Yang said.

“You guys all probably agree with this because you’re quite young,” he told the Georgetown University crowd, adding an anecdote about driving a 1985 Honda Accord as a young man.

Yang then proposed an alternative to individuals owning their own cars.

“What we’re really selling is not the car, it’s mobility,” he said. “So if you have mobility that’s then tied into a much more, if you had like, for example, this constant roving fleet of electric cars that you would just order up, then you could diminish the impact of ground transportation on our environment very, very quickly.”

Yang’s climate plan calls for nearly $5 trillion in spending over the next 20 years. His proposal includes embracing the impacts of climate change.

“Move our people to higher ground. Natural disasters and other effects of climate change are already causing damage and death. We need to adapt our country to this new reality,” his plan states.

The plan also includes a zero emissions standard for all new cars by 2030 and hundreds of billions of dollars in investments in emission-free ground and air transportation.

Warren’s war against savings

Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and Mike Solon:

Who owns the vast wealth of America? Old folks. According to the Federal Reserve, households headed by people over the age of 55 own 73% of the value of domestically owned stocks, and the same share of America’s total wealth. Households of ages 65 to 74 have an average of $1,066,000 in net worth, while those between ages 35 and 44 have less than a third as much on average, at $288,700.
A socialist might see injustice in that inequality. But seniors know this wealth gap is the difference between the start and the finish of a career of work and thrift, making the last mortgage and retirement payments rather than the first. Seventy-two percent of the value of all domestically held stocks is owned by pension plans, 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts, or held by life insurance companies to fund annuities and death benefits. This wealth accumulated over a lifetime and benefits all Americans.

That means it’s your life savings on the line—not the bankroll of some modern-day John D. Rockefeller—when Democrats push to limit companies’ methods of enriching their shareholders. Several Democratic congressmen and presidential candidates have proposed to limit stock buybacks, which are estimated to have increased stock values by almost a fifth since 2011, as well as to block dividend payments, impose a new federal property tax, and tax the inside buildup of investments. Yet among all the Democratic taxers and takers, no one would hit retirees harder than Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Her “Accountable Capitalism Act” would wipe out the single greatest legal protection retirees currently enjoy—the requirement that corporate executives and fund managers act as fiduciaries on investors’ behalf. To prevent union bosses, money managers or politicians from raiding pension funds, the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act requires that a fiduciary shall manage a plan “solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries . . . for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to participants and their beneficiaries.” The Securities and Exchange Commission imposes similar requirements on investment advisers, and state laws impose fiduciary responsibility on state-chartered corporations.

Sen. Warren would blow up these fiduciary-duty protections by rewriting the charter for every corporation with gross receipts of more than $1 billion. Every corporation, proprietorship, partnership and limited-liability company of that size would be forced to enroll as a federal corporation under a new set of rules. Under this new Warren charter, companies currently dedicated to their shareholders’ interest would be reordered to serve the interests of numerous new “stakeholders,” including “the workforce,” “the community,” “customers,” “the local and global environment” and “community and societal factors.”

Eliminating corporations’ duty to serve investors exclusively and forcing them to serve political interests would represent the greatest government taking in American history. Sen. Warren’s so-called accountable capitalism raids the return that wealth provides to its owners, the vast majority of whom are present or near retirees. This subversion of capitalism would hijack Americans’ wealth to serve many new masters who, unlike shareholders, don’t have their life savings at stake in the companies that are collectivized.
After dividing retirees’ rightful earnings eight ways to serve the politically favored, the Warren charter goes on to require that “not less than 2/5 of the directors of a United States corporation shall be elected by the employees.” With a mandate to share profits with seven other interest groups and 40% of the board chosen by non-investors, does anybody doubt that investors’ wealth would be quickly devoured?

At best, every U.S. company with gross revenues over $1 billion would be suddenly coerced into operating like a not-for-profit. But unlike legally recognized Benefit Corporations, the companies would be redirected to multiple competing purposes. A new Office of U.S. Corporations would decide—and lawyers would sue to determine—whether those interests are satisfied, and only then would retirees receive the remaining crumbs. Only in Sen. Warren’s socialist heaven would workers continue to sweat and sacrifice while their rewards go to publicly favored groups.

It is the fiduciary responsibility of every investment adviser, pension fund, 401(k), IRA and life insurance company to tell its clients what would happen to their investments under Sen. Warren’s bill. Her plan would devastate the income-generating capacity of every major company in America and decimate their market value in the process.

If the bill were passed, retirement plans and investors could attempt to sell their stocks and find new investments where their money would still work for them. They could sell their shares in the large companies subject to Sen. Warren’s dispossession and buy into smaller companies with receipts below the $1 billion threshold, or look for investments abroad.

The problem is that everybody else would be trying to do the same. Investments built over a lifetime would be sold in a fire sale, with limited alternatives purchased in panic buying. While no econometric model could give a reliable estimate of the wealth destruction, no knowledgeable observer could doubt that an economic cataclysm would follow such a policy. “Accountable capitalism” would hit present and near-retirees first and hardest, followed by American workers and the rest of the economy.

Sen. Warren would roll back the economic Enlightenment that gave us private property and economic freedom, and plunge us back into the communal world of the Dark Ages. Like the village, guild, church and crown of yore, government-empowered special interests would once again be allowed to extort labor and thrift. When capital is no longer protected as private property and is instead redefined as a communal asset, prosperity and freedom will be the greatest casualties.

Socialism always destroys wealth; it doesn’t redistribute it. Unfortunately, this great truth is far from self-evident. Whether current and near-retirees will stand up and fight for their retirement savings will effectively gauge the survival instinct of our country, and our willingness to preserve the economic system that built it.

Mr. Gramm, a former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Solon is a partner of US Policy Metrics.

Back to the future of journalism

James Fallows:

This is another road report on the state of local journalism, which is more and more important, and more and more imperiled.

It is important because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level. Educational innovation, promotion of new industries and creation of fairer opportunities, absorption of new arrivals (in growing communities) and retaining existing talent (in shrinking ones), reform of policing and prison practices, equitable housing and transportation policies, offsets to addiction and homelessness and other widespread problems, environmental sustainability—these and just about every other issue you can think of are the subjects of countless simultaneous experiments going on across the country. Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals.

Liberal laundry list put aside …

This brings us to The Quoddy Tides, the twice-monthly, family-owned and -run newspaper that has a print circulation several times larger than the population of the city where it is based.

The home city is Eastport, Maine, whose library Deb wrote about recently, and which we described in our book, Our TownsIn its heyday as a sardine-canning capital, Eastport had a population of more than 5,000. Now the canneries are gone, and the year-round population is about 1,300, and nearly everyone in town holds a combination of jobs—lobster fishing, seasonal tourist businesses, work at the commercial port or in forestry, small crafts or art studios—to make ends meet. But in this setting, The Quoddy Tides has a paid print circulation of just less than 5,000, and now has more than 50 years of continuous operation. Its editorial and business office is in a white clapboard structure that at various times was a fishing-company office and then a Christian Science church, along the bay front in Eastport’s small but architecturally distinguished downtown. It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community.

Part of The QT’s circulation secret is similar to that of Seven Days, in Vermont: It is aimed at an audience, and market, beyond its immediate hometown base. In addition to news of Eastport, The QT covers that of other down-east Maine towns such as Lubec, Machias, and Calais (pronounced like callous), and adjoining maritime islands and towns in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It also has a substantial mail circulation, reaching subscribers in 49 states who are originally from the area, or have visited, or feel some interest or connection to it. (South Dakota is the outlier. People of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, c’mon!)

Also, like The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi, the paper’s family ownership means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline.

But when I spoke with the husband-and-wife couple who run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, they emphasized that it was the kind of journalism they provide that has allowed them to survive.

The Quoddy Tides—named for the Passamaquoddy Bay on which Eastport sits, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy—was founded by Edward’s mother, Winifred, in 1968. She and her husband, Rowland, a doctor, had moved to Eastport from Arizona in the early 1950s, and stayed there to raise their family. (“My mother was looking for someplace not quite as hot,” Edward told me in The QT’s office earlier this month. “Coastal Maine qualified.”) Rowland became a leading local doctor, with a clinic now named in his honor. One of Edward’s brothers, Hugh, also lives now in Eastport, where with his wife, Kristin McKinlay, he runs a museum and arts organization called the Tides Institute.

In the late 1960s, as the family’s children were growing, Winifred decided that the community needed a newspaper. A previous one, from the town’s sardine-canning days, had gone out of business in the 1950s. “She had no newspaper experience,” Lora said of her mother-in-law. “But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up.” After a year of research, she launched the paper in 1968.

Edward, then elementary-school age, grew up helping address papers for mail subscribers, and with the page layout. In those days, a fishing boat took article text across the water to a layout shop in Deer Island, Canada, and then another boat would carry the pasted-up pages back to the U.S. for printing.

Then and now, the striking characteristic of the paper is its density of local news. The most recent issue, when we visited, was 40 pages long, with many dozens of purely local, information-packed news stories.

For instance, the front page (at right) had five local stories: about the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council’s effort to defend water rights; about limits on sea-urchin fishing (a quickly growing market, mainly for export to Asia); about the impact of new tax preferences, for land conservation, on local tax revenues; a crime story; and one about an academic-freedom dispute at the local Maritime College of Forest Technology. Plus, a picture of a kayaker viewing a Minke whale—of which we saw large numbers in the bay.

In the rest of the paper you have: high-school sports. Commercial shipping schedules and tide tables. Gardening and cooking tips. Religious news. Birth and death notices. Puzzles. Local city-council roundups. A long editorial and letters-to-editors section. Everything.

“I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting,” Edward told me at The QT’s office. “If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else.” If there is a “secret” of the paper’s success, he said, it is “that you’re providing information that people can’t find any other place.”

Exactly. Broadcasters, even in small markets, aren’t interested in the minutiae of government. Nor are daily newspapers not covering their main markets.

One example of what can happen was when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel breathlessly reported that nearly every rural well in Southwest Wisconsin was contaminated. The percentage Bergquist reported was the percentage of wells that had already been tested and found contaminated; the resulting testing was to determine which contaminants could be found in the wells. I’ve said that journalism is the opposite of math, but there is a difference between 32 percent and 91 percent.

Both Lora and Edward emphasized that the paper’s twice-a-month publishing schedule—the second and fourth Friday of each month, with a built-in cushion for them in the months that have five Fridays—gives them an advantage, in forcing them away from the daily or breaking-news stories that their readers would already have learned about elsewhere.

“I believe that daily newspapers struggle because they’re so often repeating what’s already been presented, either in social media or on the television news,” Edward said. “But when you have a local newspaper that is presenting news people aren’t going to find anywhere else, I think there will always be a need for that. I think that will allow local newspapers to survive very well.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a twice-monthly newspaper. If you produce 40-page newspapers twice a month, one would think going weekly could make you more current, though not necessarily more profitable. It seems to work for them, anyway. And it is nice to see someone who has worked in big media acknowledge that there is something besides New York and Washington media.

Unlike her husband, Lora is not originally from Eastport. She grew up in New York; some of her relatives ran a small newspaper in Santa Barbara, California; and she originally came to Maine, before she met Edward, to work on an economic-development project. They met, and married, and she became involved with the newspaper. Now she is the assistant editor and publisher, and does much of the local-news coverage.

“I don’t know what journalism schools are doing these days, but I really wish they would focus more on local news,” she told me. “It can be boring, I mean really boring, to go to city-council meetings every month, and county-commissioner meetings every month. But at the same time, it’s incredibly important. And at least once a year, something will come out that’s incredibly important, and that you would not know if you hadn’t been there.”

“Those are the kinds of stories that local people need to know, and want to know, and that are getting lost with some of the papers that don’t have the resources, or don’t understand how important it is to cover those boring meetings month after month.”

“It’s not exciting most of the time,” she said—and Deb and I knew what she was talking about, since we’d been to an Eastport City Council meeting that she was covering. “But it’s critical. It’s like how most of us live our lives. Not terribly exciting most of the time—but, you know, we have these moments!”

One of my most valuable UW School of Journalism classes was a public-affairs reporting class taught by a New York Times correspondent, Raymond Anderson. He assigned us to cover government meetings, which I was doing in my first journalism job at the Monona Community Herald. So I asked him if I could submit my work for the class, and he said that would be fine. I was getting professional critiques of the work I was getting paid to do. I got an A in the class. (And thus my first career goal, to get paid twice for the same work.)

I too wonder what J-schools teach these days. I used to think that too many reporters wanted to become the next Woodward and/or Bernstein, breaking huge news that made the reporters famous. I also see that young journalists think they want to get into journalism so they can change the world. That’s wrong. The reason to get into journalism (other than the long and irregular hours, low pay and people who hate you) is to report on the world, including the world within your media outlet’s circulation, listenership or viewership area.

Edward had an aw-shucks, self-deprecating manner when talking about his newspaper’s influence and record. Maybe this is The Maine Way; maybe it’s just him. But he wasn’t afraid to seem earnest when talking about why he believed that local journalism mattered.

“I think we provide quite a bit of investigative reporting, and try to get into the meat of what’s happening so that people can make informed decisions. We really try to provide a voice for people in our communities that might otherwise not have a voice, so that people in power have to address their concerns and be held accountable.”

“I think that’s really the basis for a healthy democracy,” he said. “I think without community newspapers, democracy will really suffer.” It’s worth noting at this point that we’ve been following the Eastport and Quoddy Tides saga for more than six years now, and what Edward and Lora said about their paper matches what other people in the community have told us as well. It’s not unusual to overhear people saying, “Well, I saw in the Tides …”

Lora said that in a town as small as Eastport, she and her husband and their contributors knew that every day they would encounter people they were writing about, and people who read their paper. “It’s a delicate balance in a community this small,” she said. “We’d walk into the IGA”—the local grocery store—“and people would come up to us waving a story we’d written.” For a long time, she said, she and Edward didn’t have a phone-answering machine, because they didn’t want to deal with some messages.

But overall, she said, “actually it’s a blessing to feel that trust that people have in you. They come up to you and say, ‘This is what I’m worried about. Is there any way you can look into it?’ Sometimes we can. Sometimes we cannot. But it is a beautiful feeling to have someone trust you like that.”

The Quoddy Tides model may not work in other communities, and it may not work forever even in this one. But for now it’s a useful illustration of the way journalism, community, public discourse, and civic engagement can interact in a positive cycle, rather than in the destructive ways we’re all so familiar with.

That approach is in fact working all over the state, in markets too small for daily newspapers. I think it’s working all over the nation too, though evidence is hard to find since I don’t get out of the state much.

Of course, a newspaper is a business, and no business can spend more money than it brings in and stay in business. That is the current crisis in the media — dropping revenues (and advertising generally brings in twice as much revenue as sales of subscriptions and single copies) because of more competition for advertising dollars, partly due shrinkage of the local advertising base that has fueled newspapers for decades.

I would say the Quoddy Tides might want to update their look …

… though I suppose it would be prideful and self-promoting to suggest something that looks more like this award-winning weekly newspaper …

 

 

Comrade Sanders, savior of journalism

Jeff Jacoby disagrees with this headline (which hopefully readers realize was displayed in the sarcasm font):

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail to be pounded. When you’re Bernie Sanders and your only tool is socialism, every problem looks like a capitalist to be bashed.

The septuagenarian senator from Vermont is an unabashed lifelong socialist, whose solutions to most problems involve more government, less freedom, and higher taxes. This week, in a 1,700-word essay published in the Columbia Journalism Review, he proposed a “plan for journalism” involving — can you guess? — more government, less freedom, and higher taxes. The capitalist-bashing begins in the second sentence: “Today’s assault on journalism by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump presents a crisis — and [is] why we must take concrete action.”

But Sanders, like Trump, is quick to impugn journalists’ motives. And much of the “action” he proposes would interfere with media companies that try to save themselves.

If elected, Sanders says, he would use the power of the federal government to crack down on media mergers that would lead to layoffs, consolidate news outlets under fewer owners, or “adversely affect” women and minorities. He would “reinstate and strengthen” the old cross-ownership rule that blocked TV and radio stations from owning newspapers in the same market. And he would require the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to “more stringently” pursue antitrust litigation against Facebook and Google, whose success has come in part at the expense of traditional media outlets.
Sanders also raises the prospect of taxing online ads and using the revenue to fund “nonprofit civic-minded media” and to “substantially increase” government subsidies for public journalism. That won’t do anything for struggling private newspapers and magazines, but it will certainly boost the power of PBS and NPR and their decidedly left-wing worldview.

Nothing in Sanders’ plan is fresh or novel. How and whether to rein in Big Tech, to expand racial and gender diversity in the media, to tax advertising and Internet services, to underwrite nonprofit media — all of these have been perennial topics of debate when the agenda turns to the ailments of the news business. In his essay, the senator vowed to impose an “immediate moratorium” on corporate media mergers like the proposed combination of Viacom and CBS. But media consolidation has been a left-wing bugbear forever. “Remember back in 2000 when the merger of AOL and Time Warner spelled the absolute doom of an independent press?” asks Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie. “Better yet, can you even remember AOL or Time magazine, once massive presences in media that are now desiccated ruins of their former selves?”
Sanders acknowledges the ravaging of the news industry in recent decades. “Over the past 15 years, more than 1,400 communities across the country have lost newspapers, which are the outlets local television, radio, and digital news sites rely on for reporting,” he writes. “Since 2008, we have seen newsrooms lose 28,000 employees — and in the past year alone, 3,200 people in the media industry have been laid off.” But Sanders seems far less interested in the plight of journalists than in exploiting their excruciations to score ideological points.

Like so much of what America’s best-known socialist says and writes, his media plan drips with hostility for capitalists and capitalism. He repeatedly decries the lack of “real journalism” in America, and blames it on his standard villains: the “forces of greed that are pillaging our economy,” the “corporate conglomerates and hedge fund vultures,” the “oligarchic business models,” the “billionaires who … use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny.” Sanders is particularly hostile to Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who owns The Washington Post. He suggested recently that his criticism of Bezos is the reason the Post “doesn’t write particularly good articles about me.” At times, his attacks on the integrity of publishers and the motives of reporters have been almost indistinguishable from President Trump’s.

Lord knows the news business is in dire straits these days, but socialist nostrums aren’t going to stop the cataclysmic changes unleashed by the digital revolution. As someone who has worked in newsrooms for more than three decades, I mourn the lost era when nearly every home subscribed to a newspaper. I wince at every newspaper shutdown or round of layoffs. But the media aren’t in extremis because they weren’t regulated enough. If anything, some daily papers might yet be alive if, for example, the cross-ownership rule hadn’t deprived them of a potential lifeline.

Trashing the entrepreneurs and investors who are keeping some of the nation’s legacy news organizations alive may suit Sanders’ anti-capitalist shtick, but it will do nothing to save the business of journalism. “We cannot sit by and allow corporations, billionaires, and demagogues to destroy the Fourth Estate,” says Sanders. That’s the way he always talks — the tiresome rhetoric of a one-tool politician with the same scapegoat for everything.

One solution that would work better than the status quo is to allow, not ban, cross ownership of newspapers and broadcast properties. It worked great for Journal Communications (until the fateful decision to go public, and now Journal is no more).

In addition to the tiresome call for more taxes, the regulations Comrade Bernie suggests — preventing mergers he doesn’t like and creating new media outlets with federal money) would make the feds in charge of media companies. Maybe Sanders wants that. (Maybe Trump wants that too.) No one else should.

 

Gannett vs. newspapers

John Temple:

From 20 feet away, one designer used to tell me, all newspapers look the same: vertical rectangles with black ink on them. But the announcement earlier this month that the country’s two largest newspaper companies have agreed to merge is a reminder that there are actually two very different ways to look at them. To some, local newspapers are simply cash machines, from which investors can make withdrawals until there’s nothing left. To others, they are community trusts, essential civic resources to be sustained.

The acquisition of Gannett, publisher of USA Today and other papers, by GateHouse Media represents the apotheosis of the newspaper as a financial instrument. GateHouse, the buyer, is the largest owner of U.S. newspapers by titles. Gannett is the largest owner of U.S. newspapers by circulation. The new company, to carry the Gannett name, would have a print circulation of more than 8.5 million.

Should the Department of Justice approve the deal, it would be allowing the creation of a behemoth that dwarfs other newspaper companies, one that would dominate local journalism in many states, and have unparalleled national reach in print. The new company says its first order of business will be to realize $275 million to $300 million a year in “run-rate cost synergies.” In plain English, that means many journalists will lose their jobs.

Print advertising and print circulation are declining at a rapid rate, and digital growth is not making up the difference. Gannett and GateHouse are hoping that, together, they can grow efficient enough to survive. But the deal makes me think of two drowning giants grabbing onto each other to try to save themselves. While I long ago learned to be careful about predicting the future in print, my guess is that it won’t be too many years before they pull each other under.
Just consider these recent findings from the Pew Research Center. U.S. newspaper circulation is now at its lowest level since 1940, even as the national population has grown from 132 million to nearly 330 million. Last year, daily circulation—print and digital—was down 8 percent, and Sunday circulation was down 9 percent. The numbers were even worse for print, which posted 12 and 13 percent declines, respectively. While overall digital advertising spending increased by 23 percent in 2018, that wasn’t enough to offset the losses in print advertising—total ad revenue for newspaper companies was down by 13 percent. In consequence of this decline, newspaper-newsroom employment continues to shrink. It’s down 47 percent since 2004.
But even if the new Gannett manages to beat the odds and stay afloat, the prognosis for the papers it owns is grim. Gannett papers today largely look and sound the same. They feature similar, centrally produced news reports, and offer little individuality or quirky local flavor.

Gannett was the pioneer of this approach. As it grew, from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, it boasted that its quarterly profits were always bigger than the one before. The result, according to the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ben Bagdikian in his 1983 book, The Media Monopoly, “Profit squeezes and indifference to comprehensive local news is the norm.” GateHouse came along in the late 1990s and one-upped the earlier generations of newspaper chains. It went bankrupt in 2013 after it had spread across 330 markets in 21 states. The reborn company now operates in 612 markets in 39 states.

The consequences of this approach for local communities and for the fabric of our country are already clear—and grave. If some of these papers shrivel or even shut down to produce “run-rate cost synergies”—since the merger announcement, GateHouse has already cut staff at four newspapers—we’ll end up with more news deserts, communities without local newspapers. Other papers may be so diminished that they’re local newspapers in name only. That will leave some of the country’s most vulnerable residents without the information to help them participate in public life, including by voting, or the protections that investigative reporting can bring. The decline and failure of local newspapers means fewer eyes on the powerful, higher public borrowing costs, and more.

Something like this has already happened in recent years to local television news. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest broadcaster, is notorious for distributing packaged segments to all of its stations, and for having its anchors across different markets use exactly the same words, sometimes reflecting partisan positions.

It’s reasonable to fear that the new Gannett—which would own more than 260 daily news organizations, and hundreds of weeklies—might have a similarly negative impact on even more parts of our country.

Many dedicated, talented journalists are doing meaningful work today at both GateHouse and Gannett newspapers. I know some of them. In my role at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, I work closely with Gannett journalists I admire. And earlier this year, I was among the judges who gave GateHouse the top award for innovation at a major newspaper conference. Not for its journalism, though. Instead, Gatehouse was recognized for its booming and profitable events business, which it has successfully replicated in many of its markets.

However, the positive efforts of some at the two companies today don’t lessen the profound reason for concern.

There has to be a different path forward, one that doesn’t call for emptying newspapers like ATMs, or consolidating them under the control of a massive corporation. Every community deserves to have a place it can turn to each day to understand itself, to see itself reflected truthfully, and where its members can learn about others who are different from themselves and get the information they need to participate in our democracy.

One promising model is being tested in Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Inquirer is now a public-benefit corporation, owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Instead of maximizing profit for shareholders, the Inquirer can balance meeting the needs of its community with the need to make a profit. It can seek community support in new ways because it’s acting as a community resource, not a money machine.

It’s not a given that this approach will succeed. But I think it’s our best hope. I heard Terry Egger, the paper’s publisher and CEO, speak at a conference in Las Vegas this spring. He said he tells his colleagues that they don’t work for any of the company’s print or digital titles—they work for the region’s people. He asks them to ask themselves: How are you making their lives better?

His message to the community and his staff emphasizes the importance of a free press. It’s a message that he can offer unequivocally because he’s clear about the mission of his news organization. And he’s using it to seek and receive community support, from foundations and individuals.

It’s possible to imagine a very different kind of network from the one the new Gannett promises to build. Community foundations and leaders around the country, along with people and businesses who care about the health of their local communities, can band together to support their local press.

I was the founding editor of one such news organization, Honolulu Civil Beat. We started it as a for-profit company. But after a few years, its board concluded that it needed to take a different path. As a nonprofit, it could develop deeper ties to the community that would give it a greater likelihood of sustainability.

Today I serve as an adviser to the Colorado Media Project, an effort to help meet the information needs of Coloradans by strengthening the state’s news ecosystem. This effort was triggered by the gutting of The Denver Post by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital; the rebellion of its editorial page; and the departure of many of its best journalists to form a new local-news organization, The Colorado Sun.

The state, and nation, are facing a crisis in local media. Our answers don’t have to be newspapers as we’ve known them until now, ink on paper. Despite what my designer friend told me years ago, newspapers were never just that. They were reflections of the fabric of their community. Some, frankly, didn’t live up to their calling. Others punched above their weight class. But no matter what, we almost always knew that a community would be worse without them.

What we need is not a giant local-news company along the lines of the new Gannett, structured to reduce expenses and buy time until it finds a way to ride the digital wave. What we need instead is a network of local-news organizations that can offer tools that enable local people to focus on the important job of telling their communities’ stories.

The result may look like a vertical rectangle covered in black ink, or take an entirely different form. But what will really differentiate it is its commitment to the service of a common cause, one that’s essential if the United States is to thrive in the 21st century.

Everyone who subscribes to the Green Bay Press–Gazette, The Post~Crescent in Appleton, the Wausau Daily Herald or the seven other Wisconsin dailies owned by Gannett know what having Gannett as your publisher is like. (Gannett purchased eight dailies from Thomson, which was no one’s idea of a quality newspaper publisher either, in 2000.) The smaller the newspaper is, the more it is like the next-door newspaper, including a couple pages of rewarmed USA Today news (which I call USA Yesterday) and a generic sports section.

I was in Appleton in June for the state baseball tournament, held at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute. I picked up The Post~Crescent on two mornings, and found not one word about state baseball, despite the fact it was held down the street from The Post~Crescent’s office.

How does the Gannett sale apply to the state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel? Bruce Murphy:

Back in the fall of 2015, when the purchase of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by the Gannett chain was announced, I predicted significant cuts for the newspaper under the new ownership. Looking at the staff count at other Gannett papers, and adjusting for market size, I predicted the Journal Sentinel would lose 35 to 40 editorial staff.

I was wrong. Back then the Journal Sentinel had 117 editorial staff (editors, writers, photo, design and online people). Today that’s down to 88 staff, a loss of 29 staff, not quite as bad as I predicted. That may be because the JS has always rated near the top among newspapers in market penetration — the percent of residents subscribing to the newspaper — which makes it a slightly larger readership than its metro population might suggest. 

Still, that was a 25 percent reduction in staff, which is huge, and there is every reason to believe more cuts are to come. That’s because Gannett is having financial problems which may force more cuts, and because it could be absorbed by Gatehouse Media (under a merger plan where Gatehouse would get slightly more stock — just over 50 percent — and thus control the new company). And Gatehouse has a reputation for slashing staff even more aggressively than Gannett has.

But that deal may not go through, because MNG Enterprises, the owner of Digital First Media, has just purchased 9 percent of the stock of the parent company of Gatehouse Media, with the apparent aim of trying to kill the merger with Gannett. Why? Perhaps because Digital First has also had its eye on Gannett, but back in February Gannett’s board of directors rejected the buyout bid from the hedge fund that owns Digital First Media.

If Digital First ever got its hands on Gannett that would be disastrous. As L.A. Times reporter Matt Pearce tweeted back when it was bidding for Gannett: “Digital First Media’s hedge fund owner slashes local newsrooms to the bone, soaks them for profits and then spends money on things that aren’t journalism. If they’re knocking on the door, you should lock the deadbolt.”

With luck Gannett will avoid a buyout that ugly. But it is difficult to see any scenario — even if Gannett continues on its own — under which the JS doesn’t continue to bleed staff. Yet I don’t expect the JS to go out of business. From a market perspective there is sufficient reason to keep the paper going, yet little reason to resist more cuts in staff.

A newspaper like the Journal Sentinel has little market power in the digital ad world, which is dominated by Google, which makes nearly as much from advertising as the entire media industry. And that doesn’t take into account Facebook’s massive impact on where advertising dollars go.

Gannett’s strategy has been to build readership, market power and the ability to negotiate for better ad rates by buying up local newspapers, in essence trying to consolidate a declining industry. The company owns at least 104 local newspapers and more than 1,000 weeklies. Gannett’s goal is to gain as many local markets as possible to wrap some local coverage around its national USA Today stories, which can be republished at little cost in all of its local newspapers and weeklies.

It also consolidates costs by centralizing printing, circulation and copy editing for its newspaper chain. The JS newsroom is managed by the Gannett corporate office in Virginia. The JS website is also managed from the central office based not on the importance of a particular story, but on algorithms measuring traffic and then highlighting the most popular stories.

In short, there won’t be any sleepless nights at Gannett if a key story in city or county government is missed by the Journal Sentinel. First, because Gannet’s management doesn’t live in Wisconsin. Second, because the most popular stories at the Journal Sentinel are sports stories, typically seven to eight of the top 10 most popular stories on any given day. And third because covering city and county government is labor intensive and you can get as much (and probably more) readership at jsonline.com by simply republishing lifestyle or sports stories from USA Today or any of its 100-plus daily newspapers. 

When local and state news stories are published at jsonline, the algorithms take over: they might get buried by the website in half a day. The goal is to direct readers to the most popular stories and that’s typically sports and lifestyle, particularly dining, weather reports and then the national stories done by USA Today. It may also mean grabbing a story from another of its papers that did well and giving it prominence on the JS website.

The recent decision by the Journal Sentinel to put up a harder pay wall for most local and state stories has blocked all the free riders, reducing the readership even more for those stories, compared to those republished from other Gannett papers that have no pay wall.

So if you’re Gannett, from an online traffic perspective, whether it’s city, suburban or county coverage or education coverage, none of it matters much. The JS hasn’t had a full-time county reporter since Steve Schultze took a buyout some four years ago. And it barely covers City Hall any more. When future cuts come the 34 staff listed under News and Investigations will likely be the most vulnerable.

The staff you need to protect are sports reporters and the dining writer, because those stories get way more readership than news. The most important news beat is the state Capitol, because you have more potential readers impacted by state government, and there the newspaper has maintained two reporters. So far. Meanwhile there are 17 staff handling sports for the newspaper.

All of which I’m sure is killing Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley, who truly cares about covering the news, as well as the paper’s news staff. But when it’s not a priority for the owners, and when a reporter’s important but not-so-sexy story is soon buried on the website, it begins to seem silly to go to all that effort.

Apparently Murphy is OK with Stanley’s arrogance toward non-liberal readers, which is probably no surprise since Murphy is quite anti-conservative, and, for that matter, so is Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Dan Bice and whatever people make editorial decisions. Be that as it may …

Meanwhile, Gannett is doing all it can to push readers to drop print subscriptions and switch to digital readership. When everything is centralized and nationalized, an ever-thinner local print edition is not really a priority. Moreover print advertising is dying: the Sunday paper still looks fat, but that’s mostly adverting supplements prepared by businesses who simply pay an insert fee to be stuffed into the paper, which generates much less revenue than a display ad published by the newspaper.

While I have been describing the approach of Gannett, anyone who takes over that chain will operate similarly because of the brutal dynamics of the online ad market. The media is now competing with the massive international scale of monopoly companies like Google and Facebook, who can deliver ads to huge numbers of people, targeted to exactly the audience you want, say a young urban female interested in rock music. Which means news publications need the most online readership they can get, to give them more market power when competing for advertisers.

So Gannett or whoever buys the company has every incentive to keep every local newspaper going in those 100-plus cities. Gatehouse does look to combine papers in nearby cities, and should it take over Gannett would probably do some consolation of the latter company’s three newspapers in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley. But Milwaukee is far too large a market and too far from any nearby city to consolidate with another newspaper. Better to keep the JS going and simply trim its staff as needed.

All of which means the Journal Sentinel won’t go out of business, but will never again be what it once was. The paper is likely to continue losing staff and importance to readers who care about the news.

Temple poses an interesting idea that may work in some markets. His ignorance of how business works shows in the assumption that “nonprofit” means you don’t have to make a profit. “Nonprofit” means that profits aren’t distributed to owners and it doesn’t pay income taxes. “Nonprofit” doesn’t mean it can spend more money than it brings in, or even spend as much money as it brings in. Any venture that doesn’t bring in more money than it spends is doomed to eventual failure.