Business of News

To save itself, journalism will need to stop preaching to the choir

July 15, 2020

Margaret Sullivan’s new book about the decline of local news was not written for journalists, she says. It’s written for people whose daily lives and interests are tied up in the implications of journalism’s loss, in ways they might not yet understand. With this perspective, Sullivan inspires two necessary questions: How might the journalism industry look backward with a more critical eye, and how might it communicate its own importance with people outside the profession? 

In a conversation Monday between Dan Rather, longtime anchor of the CBS Evening News, and Sullivan, the media columnist at the Washington Post and author of the newly published Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, both noted that the American public is woefully underinformed about the crisis facing local news. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that 71 percent of survey respondents believed that local news outlets were doing well financially. But as I noted in last week’s newsletter, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have disappeared since 2005, along with half of the country’s journalists. Many of the papers that remain are “ghost newspapers”—which Sullivan defined as papers that still circulate with a small staff “as a shadow of what they once were.” The crisis extends beyond newspapers, she added, to include threats to local radio and television stations. Despite this reality, Dan Rather agreed, “so many people don’t understand that there’s a crisis in American journalism.”

Though the public’s ignorance on this matter signals yet another failure from journalism’s present, it also presents a dual opportunity for journalism’s future: the opportunity to reevaluate priorities and to communicate them to non-journalists. If the public is misinformed about the economic state of our industry, it’s the role and responsibility of the press to fill the void—to identify those elements that make local journalism uniquely worthwhile to civil society, to preserve them, to clarify them, and to amplify them. “It surprises me how eager most people are to talk about at least some part of this,” Rather said. “But people don’t have much patience for journalists saying, ‘Well, my profession’s in trouble.’ Every profession’s in trouble. We have to relate the crisis of journalism to society as a whole.”

Communicating the importance of journalism to people outside the profession requires humility and honesty—not overinflating journalism’s past or its role in the present. “When the digital world came along and really dealt newspapers this very difficult blow, we didn’t respond very well. We were fat and happy, we were complacent, we wanted things to go back to the way they were,” Sullivan said on Monday. “We have to be a lot more savvy and forward-thinking. We need to admit that we got some things wrong, and do better.” 

In order to do better, journalists need to focus on the fundamental strengths of local news that are worth preserving—localized beat reporting, informational accountability, civic sense-making—and stop preaching to the choir.

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Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • LAST REPORTERS STANDING: For the New York Times, Dan Barry profiled Evan Brandt, one of the last remaining reporters covering Pottstown, Pennsylvania, for local paper The Mercury, which was bought by Alden Global Capital in 2011. The Mercury’s story of economic decline—reporter buyouts, dwindling coverage, a mildewed and shuttered newsroom—is the story of so many publications across the country. “Business deals consummated far from Pottstown were not only affecting livelihoods, but also the concept of an informed electorate,” Barry writes, of the relationship between Alden and The Mercury. “Mr. Brandt might wish that Alden would take its cue from Lancaster, an hour’s drive away, where the Steinman family announced last year that it would forgo dividends and reinvest profits back into its newspaper, LNP.” Barry also reports that in 2018, Brandt approached Alden president Heath Freeman’s front door while holding a cardboard sign that proclaimed “Invest in us or sell us.” After the Times profile was published, Brandt tweeted, “The point I hope comes through is its [sic] time to put local news in hands other than those devoted solely to profit.”
  • CHATHAM WINS MCCLATCHY BID: On Friday, New Jersey hedge fund Chatham Asset Management won the bid for the McClatchy news company, beating out Alden Global Capital. Chatham has been an investor at McClatchy since 2009 and was initially expected to gain ownership of the company until the economic uncertainty caused by the covid-19 pandemic led McClatchy to put itself up for sale. For Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor writes that “In the end, any drama was distilled down to a moment of awkward comedy: Passionate supporters of a vibrant free press rooting for what they hoped would be the less damaging hedge fund to come out on top.”
  • NEWS ORGANIZATIONS STAY ON FACEBOOK: For CJR, Emily Bell wrote about the Facebook boycott that emerged with the #StopHateforProfit campaign, noting that while many publications have covered the boycott, few newsrooms have taken part. “Very few have the scale or reach that would enable them to forgo the distribution power of Facebook, and that means they’re stuck paying to promote their own articles,” Bell writes, concluding that “Facebook’s perceived lack of trust might be damaging to news publishers, but the company itself has become ever more interwoven into the fabric of the news business.” Elsewhere, DigiDay reported on Zetland, a small specialized Danish publisher that has stopped using Facebook and Instagram as a marketing channel and, so far, has managed to increase new memberships.
  • NEWS AVOIDANCE AND FREEDOM: For Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton asked, “What makes people avoid the news?” and reported some of the findings from a recent academic paper that suggests news consumption reflects a reader’s surrounding culture and circumstance. “In other words, it’s in part about the people themselves, but also in part about the news environment those people are making judgments in,” Benton writes. People living in countries with higher levels of political and press freedom tend to follow the news more closely, for example.


JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers (at no cost) and job providers.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites