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.
The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).
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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.
- PEW REPORTS ON DIGITAL-NATIVE NEWS: Yesterday, Pew Research Center published findings about digital news publications—those first launched online—noting that traffic to such sites has plateaued in recent years. Before the pandemic, Pew reports, employment at digital publications was rising, but digital-native news outlets still employed far fewer people than did newspapers or broadcast television. And Facebook and Google gobble up the majority of ad revenue, receiving more than half of digital display advertising dollars.
- DEMOCRACY AND THE ROLE OF THE PRESS: For The New Yorker, Michael Luo traces historical considerations of the press and its role in a functioning American society, beginning with the Hutchins Commission—a report from the late 1940s intended to evaluate the state of American journalism and to consider its place in a democracy. “The preservation of democracy and perhaps of civilization may now depend upon a free and responsible press,” the report concluded in 1947. In 2020, Luo writes, “Nearly seventy-five years after the publication of ‘A Free and Responsible Press,’ we face a crisis similar to, and perhaps deeper than, the one contemplated by the Hutchins Commission.” Luo examines the concepts of objectivity and truth, concluding that the fundamental role of the press should be rooted in the needs of the public it serves. (For CJR’s Election magazine issue, Akintunde Ahmad explores the ways in which journalism can fall short of this mandate.)
- REBUILDING FOR READER REVENUE: For the American Press Institute, Damon Kiesow lists some steps that could assist newsrooms interested in shifting their fundamental economic model toward reader revenues. “Launching a paywall is easy,” Kiesow writes. “Pivoting a whole business from an advertising-centric mindset to one focused on reader revenue is not.” He advocates a company-wide shift in priorities that emphasizes the importance of reader data and reader experience.
- SCALAWAG MAGAZINE WILL NO LONGER PRINT: Last week, Scalawag executive director–publisher Cierra Hinton announced that the magazine was discontinuing its print edition, writing that when she began at the magazine several years ago, “we were struggling to make the transition from cool project to sustainable news organization.” She thanked readers for their loyalty to the publication, even amid its struggles, encouraged membership—beginning levels at a cost of $5 a month—and emphasized her hope in transitioning to something new. “We want Scalawag to not only be an organization that tells untold and undertold Southern stories, but a media organization that leverages storytelling, journalism, arts, and most importantly community as we work to create a more just South—together,” Hinton wrote. “Y’all have proven to us that our impact can—and should—reach far beyond the limitations of a beautiful piece of paper.”
- MORE LAYOFFS, CLOSURES: Oakland TV station KTVU eliminated a number of positions, the Mercury News reported last week. Buffalo Toronto Public Media laid off three employees and ended a relationship with two contractors even after receiving a million dollars in PPP funding, Buffalo station WKBU reported. Kristen Hare updated the number on Poynter’s newsroom closure headline to “The coronavirus has closed more than 50 local newsrooms across America.” Media24, South Africa’s leading news publisher, announced the closure of five magazines, several newspapers, and layoffs of more than 550 employees. And this morning, The Guardian announced plans to cut jobs for up to 180 staffers.
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.