America’s local news has reached its death spiral phase.
Look no further than today’s grim announcement from the New York Daily News, a once proud fighter in the city’s news wars. On Monday, the tabloid’s owner, Tronc, announced the latest in a slog of job cuts, this one totaling 50 percent of the staff and prompting the departure of Jim Rich, who had been the paper’s editor.
If you hate democracy and think local governments should operate unchecked and in the dark, then today is a good day for you.
— Jim Rich (@therealjimrich) July 23, 2018
Once the cuts are complete, the math will look bleak: With an editorial staff of about 44 people remaining, and a New York City population of 8.6 million people, there’ll be one Daily News staffer for every 195,000 residents—a ratio much worse than most small-town papers. There can be no doubt what that will mean for the Daily News’s journalism.
And that is the dirty secret amid all of the hand-wringing about what’s happening to local news in America: As we dither and debate the future, the quality of the thing that we so badly want to save is getting worse and worse. At some point not terribly far in the future, even those of us who believe powerfully in the need for a vibrant local news landscape are going to be hard pressed to make a case that many of these outlets should be saved.
What had been a crisis has become an emergency, akin to a health epidemic, and time is not on our side.
For those of us in journalism, that means a couple of things: First, let’s stop framing this as our problem, as if anybody outside of our ranks should offer special condolences for our plight. Broad swaths of Americans are suffering economically; we are no better or different. According to the last print issue of CJR, the national median salary for a reporter in the US is $34,150; the number of reporter jobs dropped 50 percent from 2005 to 2017. We are in no better shape than in any of the other myriad occupations that have suffered in this unequal and imbalanced economy. If anything, we need to identify ourselves with other Americans facing similar plights; arguing that we are unique, or uniquely important, gets us nowhere.
We need to identify ourselves with other Americans facing similar plights; arguing that we are unique, or uniquely important, gets us nowhere.
Second, it’s pointless to spend our energy vilifying the corporate cost-cutters. Yes, many of them are short-sighted and clueless. Some, like Tronc, have an embarrassing history of bad hires and go-nowhere strategies. And nearly every publisher, from The New York Times Company on down, can be faulted for their feckless initial response to digital competitors, for putting too much stock in Facebook as a business partner, for ignoring the need to establish a meaningful relationship with their paying customers. Some of those companies, the Times Co. included, have moved aggressively to catch up, and they may well do so. But for most others, decades of missteps mean they’re cutting simply to stay alive, with every new reduction in staff making it that much harder for the paper to do the job that they so badly want to do.
So here’s where we are: We need to move away from the arguments that the country should care about laid-off reporters or that the suits should be held to account. This can’t be about us.
It has to be about why the country should care if local news goes away, which is the trajectory we now find ourselves on. What are the effects on a democracy if local news is no longer in the picture? How is my life as a New Yorker going to be worse now that the Daily News has been so terribly hobbled? If you’re in journalism and you can’t muster an answer to that question, you need to move on.
For the rest of us in this profession, it is the case we now must make, especially in the face of a national administration that has made it its business to question why journalism matters. What does it mean not to have local news in your town? Would it change where you live, how you raise your kids, where they go to school?
It would if a local coach were abusing kids, and would have kept doing so if a newspaper hadn’t reported it. It would if money that was supposed to be going to city services was instead going to higher financing costs for government bonds, since no one was paying attention to the deals the city was cutting. It would if there were a spike in health viruses, because there wasn’t the news infrastructure to warn people to be safe.
All of those examples are real. And it’s easy enough to add Daily News scoops to the list, something many of its fans, myself included, will be doing as they process this terrible day.
Our job at CJR—and the job for all of us who care about the importance of the press to democracy—is to answer the foundational questions we face as a country. Our window for addressing them—and, crucially, in a way that resonates with readers—is in very real danger of closing entirely.