Leave the war with Trump to the national papers

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Those who’ve followed President Donald Trump’s love-hate relationship with the press may have anticipated his response to more than 350 news outlets editorializing against his attacks on Thursday. The trio of tweets alone could have gone a long way toward filling out an all-caps press-bashing bingo card:

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Yet Trump, in his own roundabout way, touched upon something resembling a good point. By inaccurately citing The Boston Globe’s previous sale prices—they were actually $1.1 billion and $70 million, respectively—he hinted at the much larger threat to independent media today: economics.

ICYMI: 11 images that show how the Trump administration is failing at photography

The president’s mano-a-mano standoff with the Washington press corps offers the type of exciting chaos that makes for good copy and viral White House briefing room moments. What was unique about Thursday’s counterpunch was that it overwhelmingly came from local newspapers. These are the same outlets facing shifts in business and technology that add up to something akin to climate change for local news—a complex, slow-moving disaster that everybody acknowledges in the abstract but few voraciously follow in practice.

Instead of pooling their diminished social capital to address that potentially extinction-level event, this makeshift alliance of newspapers waded into a highly politicized, Beltway-centric sideshow. It’s a bare-knuckled brawl for which the national heavyweights are best suited.   

The Globe, which spearheaded this nobly intended editorial project, is one of the lucky ones, sitting in a relatively affluent and highly educated metro region. Local billionaire John Henry gobbled the newspaper up in 2013, saying all the right things about protecting journalism as a civic institution. Executives there have used his proverbial runway to aggressively pursue new revenue streams, and the Globe has managed to build out an enviable digital subscription business of nearly 100,000 paying customers.

Despite such promising signs, the Globe still struggles with old-world problems: declining ad revenue, recurring delivery screw-ups, and layoffs, among others. Henry ominously told Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy in a July interview that “the annual losses are just not sustainable.”

The situation is even more dire elsewhere, as all the c-suite happy talk about digital transformation over the past decade has largely amounted to strategic complacency and ensuing job cuts. Big chains like McClatchy and Gannett have been unable to escape consistent revenue declines. Tronc posted a first-quarter loss this year after its outgoing chairman—forced out amid sexual harassment allegations—paid his own consulting firm $15 million for “certain management expertise and technical services.” The Denver Post, the flagship newspaper in a fast-growing region of the country, has been taken to the chop shop by Alden Global Capital.

 

Instead of pooling their diminished social capital to address that potentially extinction-level event, this makeshift alliance of newspapers waded into a highly politicized, Beltway-centric sideshow. It’s a bare-knuckled brawl for which the national heavyweights are best suited.

 

For all the hyperlocal startups or family-owned bright spots sporadically dotting the media landscape, local news is on the ropes. And it’s not just confined to the United States. Campbell Brown, the ex-journalist hired by Facebook to make nice with publishers, reportedly told a roomful of Australian media executives that in a few years’ time she might “be holding your hands with your dying ­business like in a hospice.” (Brown denied saying this, but it’s not that outlandish of a sentiment.)

The appeal of local newspapers lashing out from this weakened position—and at the biggest of targets—is understandable. There’s little doubt that Trump’s anti-media invective has already trickled down to lower-level politicians and some segments of the public. And to be fair to the editorial boards that took part, some of their messages were understated, geared more toward appealing to local school board attendees than taking shots at Trump.

“Is this really what the enemy looks like?” the Hartford Courant wrote, listing out journalists’ daily trivialities, from sitting through court appearances to sifting through public documents. “Then, at the end of the workday, [we’ll be] heading out to beat-up Honda Civics littered with McDonald’s napkins, driving home and trying to mollify their families for having missed the family dinner or the soccer game. Again. Because, you know, it was a big story.”

Relatable! But who knows how many people will read such editorials, let alone how many within that group subscribe to Trump’s rhetoric and are capable, after everything we’ve learned these past few years, of being convinced. Local news outlets, by virtue of their location, are well positioned to rise above the partisan trench warfare waged among New York and Washington media. They’re also be better situated to appeal to Trump supporters—or anyone trying to get away from Trump news—through local reporting.

On Thursday, however, these outlets thrust themselves into an amorphous national conversation, feeding Trump and his media gremlins’ bad-faith campaign to paint the press as a cabal of faceless losers who hate the idea of making America great again. As the president gracefully put it, “COLLUSION.” It’s a simple message to a willfully captive audience.

One of the reasons trust in “the media” has eroded is that local outlets have atrophied, making “the media” appear distant and unconcerned with individual communities. If newspapers are going to spend column inches on themselves, survival is the most pressing issue of the moment, and one worthy of continued attention.

“Sooner or later it must sustain itself, and it will,” Henry said of the Globe, “again, though, it will require the Globe convincing the community that it is worthwhile to support.”

He’s hinting at the need to make an affirmative case for the value of local journalism in people’s lives—not playing defense against Trump’s self-serving broadsides. The more financially robust national press has already been pulled into that hyper-politicized swamp. At the risk of endorsing CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s rock-em-sock-em sparring sessions with Trump aides, it’s up to creatures of Washington to find a way out of it.

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David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.