Margaret Sullivan: What happens to society — and our democracy — when community and regional journalism dries up – The Washington Post

By | July 11, 2022

It has been our great privilege to bring y’all news from Stoneham and Woburn over the years,” read the announcement. “We regret to inform y’all that this will be the concluding edition of the Sun-Abet paper.” The Massachusetts weekly, as of Baronial, is no more.

Information technology is an increasingly familiar story beyond the U.s.. Already in a sharp downward spiral, the local news industry was hit hard past the covid-nineteen pandemic. The worst blows were taken by newspapers — businesses that, every bit a group, had never recovered from the digital revolution and the 2008 recession. Between 2005 and the get-go of the pandemic, most 2,100 newspapers airtight their doors. Since covid struck, at least 80 more papers accept gone out of business, as have an undetermined number of other local publications, similar the California Lord’s day Magazine, which folded terminal fall — and and so won a Pulitzer Prize 8 months afterwards.

Those papers that survived are still facing difficult straits. Many take laid off scores of reporters and editors — according to Pew Inquiry Center, the paper industry lost an astonishing 57 percentage of its employees betwixt 2008 and 2020 — making these publications a mere specter of their former selves. They are now “ghost newspapers”: outlets that may carry the proud former name of yore but no longer do the job of thoroughly roofing their communities and providing original reporting on matters of public interest.

Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor, describes the loss of the Sunday-Advocate in Massachusetts equally “a grim movie but not about every bit catastrophic as in some parts of the country.” After all, he told me, there are other news organizations nearby, including the Daily Times Relate in Woburn and, a digital site run by Gannett that serves swaths of Massachusetts. (Gannett had endemic the Sunday-Advocate until its closure.)

Past contrast, in many regions of the state, there is no local news coverage at all, or side by side to none. These areas have come up to exist known as “news deserts” — a term used past academics and researchers to refer to areas where coverage of the community by local news outlets is minimal or nonexistent. Information technology’s in such places that the collapse of local news is existence felt most dramatically. So again, even if y’all don’t live in a defined news desert, you may have noticed that your regional newspaper long ago ditched actively roofing your community if it is outside the immediate city and first-ring suburbs.

A Vast Landscape of Lost Newspapers

Between January 2005 and December 2020, virtually a quarter of U.S. local print newspapers ceased publishing, according to data that Northwestern professor Penny Muse Abernathy collected while at the Academy of Northward Carolina. By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.Southward. counties, half had merely one local print newspaper of whatever kind. Only a third had a daily paper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.

This tendency in local news has been life-changing, of course, for the employees who lose their jobs and incomes. But fifty-fifty more than concerning is what happens to the communities they used to serve — and, more broadly, what happens to our society and our ability to self-govern when local news dries up.

An farthermost case of the withering of local news over the past decade is Youngstown, Ohio, where the beloved 150-year-old daily paper, the Vindicator, abruptly went out of business in 2019. The death of “the Vindy” made Youngstown — but minutes from the one-time Full general Motors manufacturing institute in Lordstown — the biggest U.South. metropolis without its own daily newspaper. (A neighboring city’s newspaper began putting out a Vindicator edition, plus a modest group of former staffers launched a digital news site, Mahoning Matters. But it is not the same as a dedicated newsroom of forty journalists.)

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As I researched my 2020 book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crunch of American Republic,” I traveled to Youngstown just subsequently the shocking announcement. Residents had gathered at a quickly chosen public coming together, and many were in tears every bit they contemplated the future of their city and region without this institution.

Since 2005, well-nigh 2,200 local newspapers across America take closed. Here are some of the stories in danger of being lost — every bit told by local journalists.

I spent some time with Bertram de Souza, the newspaper’southward editorial page editor, who had been at the Vindicator for forty years. As a reporter, he helped reveal the corruption of James Traficant, who was expelled from Congress and sent to prison in 2002 after being convicted of racketeering, taking bribes and using his staff to do chores at his habitation and on his houseboat. Youngstown “is absolutely the kind of place that needs watchdog reporting,” de Souza told me, “and this paper was committed to exposing abuse.” The trouble, going forward, is that when information technology comes to revealing malfeasance, you don’t know what you don’t know: If there’s no one to keep public officials honest, citizens might never find out how their faith is being broken and their revenue enhancement dollars squandered.

Marker Brown, the paper’southward general manager and a fellow member of the family that owned information technology, said something I found poignant equally he recalled the Vindy’southward heyday, when editors were able to send a reporter or freelancer to all of the municipal board and school board meetings in a 3-county surface area. Public officials knew journalists were nowadays, Brown said, “and they behaved.”

What happened to the Vindicator was a particularly notable version of an oft-repeated story: There just wasn’t enough money anymore to keep the paper afloat and pay the staff. Brown told me that the Vindy had lost money for 20 of the 22 years before its closing considering of shrinking circulation, express advertizement revenue and rising costs.

While it was still in business, the Vindicator was relatively lucky because it was endemic by a local family unit for 132 years. Many other newspapers have fallen out of local hands and under the control of large bondage, some owned by private disinterestedness firms or hedge funds. One of these, Alden Global Capital (sometimes known as Digital First Media), possibly the worst of the so-called vulture capitalists, earlier this twelvemonth snapped up the storied Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and others in the well-regarded Tribune chain.

From a journalism perspective, this was widely — and rightly — regarded as a disaster. “Devastating” is how Ann Marie Lipinski, the Tribune’s quondam top editor, now curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, characterized the development to me in an interview. And tech journalist Karl Bode commented darkly on Twitter: “we’re slowly replacing a functional printing with PR spam, hedge fund dudebros, trolling substack opinion columnists, foreign and domestic disinformation, brand-slathered teen influencers, and hugely consolidated dumpster fires like Sinclair Dissemination.” (Sinclair Broadcast Group, the second-largest owner of local television receiver stations in the country, has at times required its news anchors to read scripts with a strong conservative bent on the air.)

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Information technology’s not just watchdog journalism that suffers when news organizations shrink or die. The turn down affects civic engagement and political polarization, also. Studies show that people who live in areas with poor local news coverage are less likely to vote, and when they do, they are more likely to do so strictly along party lines. To put information technology frankly, the demise of local news poses the kind of danger to our democracy that should take alarm sirens screeching beyond the country.

Press operator Robin Yeager reads an issue of the Vindicator in Baronial 2019. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Bertram de Souza, the Vindicator’south editorial page editor, in the newsroom in 2019. He had been at the paper for 40 years. Youngstown “is absolutely the kind of place that needs watchdog reporting,” de Souza said, “and this newspaper was committed to exposing corruption.” (Tony Dejak/AP)

LEFT: Press operator Robin Yeager reads an issue of the Vindicator in August 2019. (Tony Dejak/AP) RIGHT: Bertram de Souza, the Vindicator’due south editorial page editor, in the newsroom in 2019. He had been at the paper for 40 years. Youngstown “is admittedly the kind of place that needs watchdog reporting,” de Souza said, “and this paper was committed to exposing corruption.” (Tony Dejak/AP)

And then at that place’s the matter of public trust. In general, people trust the mainstream news media — or as I prefer to call it, the reality-based press — far less now than they did several decades ago. Effectually the time of The Washington Mail’s landmark reporting of the Watergate scandal, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers (the cloak-and-dagger history of the Vietnam War) by the New York Times and The Post, the vast majority of citizens basically believed what they heard and read in the traditional media. CBS’due south Walter Cronkite was known as “the virtually trusted man in America.”

Most studies show that there is i exception to this steady reject in trust: Americans find their local news sources significantly more credible than national news sources. All the same these are the very aforementioned outlets that are rapidly disappearing. That’s especially worrisome at a time when conspiracy theories and misinformation are rampant.

Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor and author of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” has chosen the loss of local news “the essential problem of our republic.” Information technology is naught less than a crunch, he says, and a deepening one. “The just way we tin can talk to other people is with some mutual agreement of the facts, for example whether or not our water is polluted or whether or non the teachers in our school are on strike,” Snyder told E-International Relations. We don’t have to

what we learn most our communities through local news reporting, he noted, but information technology benefits u.s.a. nonetheless. “When local news goes abroad, and then our sense of what is true shifts from what is helpful to u.s. in our daily lives to what makes us ‘feel skilful,’ which is something entirely dissimilar,” Snyder said. And, I would add, something very troubling.

This crisis, to be sure, is not just about newspapers, and certainly non only nearly newspapers in their printed incarnations. What’south important is the journalism, non the precise form it comes in. Local newspapers accept been the center of most regions’ media ecosystems for many years because historically they accept employed the nearly journalists and as a result produced the bulk of original news. But they aren’t the merely way to provide local news, by any means. Public radio, local goggle box and digital-only news sites — frequently newly formed nonprofits — are increasingly part of the equation. And if there is a future, it surely is a mostly digital one.

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But digital news sites, too, take struggled, and many accept airtight during the pandemic, including the well-regarded Bklyner, whose Brooklyn-based editor and publisher Liena Zagare wrote a heart-rending note in late August announcing a September end to publication. “Since I never figured out how to become paid regularly for the many hats I yet wear … I cannot hire someone to fill in while I take the time off that I demand to make sure that I, too, tin can be sustainable,” she explained. Among her roles: assigning stories, fact-checking, editing, reporting, writing, copy-editing, publishing, social media, tech, subscriptions, advertizement sales and handling payroll.

All of this leaves many localities — from rural areas to New York City’south near populous civic — struggling for answers. And yet, while the situation is undeniably troubling, some partial solutions are commencement to take shape. Digital news outlets are getting assistance through organizations such as the American Journalism Project, which raises money to fund and guide nonprofit, nonpartisan newsrooms. Only weeks ago, the grouping and a coalition of Cleveland-based organizations announced the Ohio Local News Initiative to bolster regional reporting in the state, starting next year with a newsroom in Cleveland. Report for America, based loosely on Teach for America, puts young journalists in underserved communities to shore up the staffs of existing news organizations.

Well-established local outlets are coming up with collaborations too, as when the Texas Tribune joined forces with national investigative powerhouse ProPublica to cover the Lone Star State, or when several Pennsylvania news organizations decided to share their resources through Spotlight PA, with a detail focus on statehouse coverage. In Chicago, a rare flake of good news recently came along to balance the auction of the Tribune: The long-struggling Sun-Times paper and Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ radio station are planning to combine as a nonprofit newsroom; it would be one of the largest in the nation. Meanwhile, there is bipartisan back up in Congress for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would grant tax credits to outlets for every local reporter on their payroll.

No 1 can doubt the idealism backside these various efforts. However, the path forward remains uncertain. In many cases, where newspapers already take closed their doors, or shrunk beyond recognition, help may be arriving too belatedly. What’southward more, any regime action, or public funding, means treading carefully; the journalism industry has, for adept reasons, long prided itself on independence.

At that place is no unmarried respond to this crisis. Whatever solution, if there fifty-fifty
a solution, volition require a multifaceted approach. But earlier local news can be saved, or successfully reinvented, i thing is absolutely necessary: American citizens must empathise the existential threat local outlets are facing — and the incalculable value that their journalism brings to our republic.

The Chicago Tribune newsroom moved from the landmark Tribune Tower in 2018 afterward 93 years. The daily paper was bought by Alden Global Capital this year. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)

Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Postal service.

Read more from The Lost Local News Issue

Since 2005, about 2,200 local newspapers across America have closed. Here are some of the stories in danger of being lost — as told by local journalists.