The decimation of local news in New York City

A month ago, I surprised a lot of people by announcing that I was making an unusual career move: After a lifetime in the journalistic trenches—including as a consistent writer for three publications that had scaled back or killed their print editions or both—I was running for a State Senate seat in the Brooklyn district where I grew up.

I launched the campaign for a variety of reasons, many of them having to do with my own frustrations with the political class. I’m not writing and reporting like I used to, but I’m trying to hold bad actors accountable in a new way. I don’t know if, 30 years ago, a more robust news landscape would’ve kept me firmly in the reporter camp, but I do know it can be a disillusioning time to be a reporter, particularly in local news and especially in New York City.

ICYMI: Local news suffers a tremendous loss

On Thursday, the latest gut punch arrived: DNAInfo, which for a time had served up admirable granular coverage of New York and other cities, was shut down by its billionaire owner, who blamed the bad economics of local news for the decision, though DNAInfo reporters are convinced a recent, successful union drive at the outlet was the real culprit.

The frightening decline of the newspaper industry has hit all cities and towns hard. No one has been spared. Digital advertising cannot make up for what print once paid for. Google and Facebook gobble up what little ad revenue exists in the digital space. In the past 15 years, more than half the jobs in the news industry have disappeared, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in April. In January 2001, the industry employed 411,800 people. In September 2016, that number plummeted to 173,709.

In New York City, my hometown, this decline has meant sparser local news coverage, relative to what we once had. In conversations with current reporters and editors, as well as newspaper veterans, this was the dark conclusion I came to, again and again. The quality of reporting is no lower than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago. In fact, with a cadre of ambitious, well-trained journalists still prowling City Hall and the outer boroughs, it may even be better, longtime observers told me. The problem is there are fewer reporters and more beats going uncovered.

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Relative to other American cities, New York still boasts a larger, more active press corps, with newspapers, TV, radio, and digital warring in a vibrant news ecosystem. Ethnic media, in just about every language imaginable, remains critical, offering a conduit to the city for new immigrants arriving every year.

But the loss has been felt nevertheless—and it has been profound. The Daily News, a tabloid so influential it once circulated three million copies a day, no longer has any reporters dedicated solely to covering any of the outer boroughs. The New York Times has less than half the number of metro reporters it used to. The Wall Street Journal ended, last year, its New York City-focused section. Obviously, the DNAInfo bureaus are now gone.

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Full-time investigative reporters, with few exceptions, do not exist. There are fewer journalists employed to scrutinize unseemly local politicians. Courtrooms and community boards are not covered the way they were. Granular, day-to-day beat coverage—the type that informs neighborhoods, holds bad local actors accountable, and shines a light on the struggles of ordinary people—is disappearing.

“I was on the poverty beat for Newsday. There were two of us on it,” says Michael Powell, a New York Times sports columnist who used to be a metro reporter for New York Newsday, the long-defunct city newspaper for the Long Island-based Newsday. “I went off and spent two months in a heroin shooting gallery in Bushwick. Then it was the end of the Earth, like Atlantis. Prostitutes would go to a crack house and hang out there. I had two months where I was just hanging out with heroin addicts and crack addicts and going deeper and deeper into their lives. I had however long it took to write it—two weeks. That’s an enormous investment for the paper, time and money, taking a chance.”

“Then the piece ran on the front page of Newsday for two days running,” Powell adds. “That’s inconceivable now.”

For a 10-year period, from the mid-1980s until New York Newsday was shuttered in 1995 because it was cutting into its parent company’s profit margin—in those pre-internet days, newspapers could still be expected to make money—three daily tabloid newspapers, along with the Times and Journal and a robust Village Voice, covered New York City. New York Newsday, where legendary columnists like Jimmy Breslin joined a staff of talented up-and-comers including Powell, employed 80 to 100 reporters, competing with well-staffed rival newspapers.

Powell recalled New York Newsday deploying six full-time City Hall reporters, three solely for investigative, enterprise features, and many more for the vast number of outer borough neighborhoods. Local politicians in the Bronx or Queens understood there were decently-paid journalists with time on their hands to watch their every move.

And if the Newsday beat reporters missed anything, there were standout investigative reporters like Wayne Barrett, Jack Newfield, and Tom Robbins at the Voice to hold power to account.

“There are as many good young reporters now as there have ever been,” Powell says. “The question is all about forum. Is there a place for them to do the kind of work that had been done by a whole variety of institutions [in the past]? The answer is clearly not.”

Journalists who have potential, who are hungry, who believe in what the principles of reporting and integrity should be about are being forced to pursue four or five or six stories a day totally irrelevant to the body politic or functioning of government.

What stories have been lost? Coverage of local politics, Powell and other longtime observers of local journalism say, is just not as comprehensive. At one time, Powell says, he could know about all the racial and ethnic factions in the Brooklyn Democratic scene just by reading a newspaper. Now, despite attempts to keep up, he knows little because the dailies have trimmed their coverage so much.

Gerson Borrero, a NY1 commentator and a City and State columnist who also served as editor in chief of El Diaro, lamented that reporters today who want to pursue long-form, investigative pieces about city government are no longer given the kind of resources or support they require from editors and management.

“Journalists who have potential, who are hungry, who believe in what the principles of reporting and integrity should be about are being forced to pursue four or five or six stories a day totally irrelevant to the body politic or functioning of government,” he says.

Last August, the Times announced it was drastically revamping how it covers New York City. Top editors said the newspaper of record would devote less space to single breaking news stories like a fire in the Bronx, moving away from “incremental” to more “consequential” news, with reporters assigned to new subject beats.

“What exactly does this mean for readers? Fewer stories about individual murders, assaults or routine crimes,” wrote the Times’ last ombudswoman, Liz Spayd. “Fewer stories about lawsuits and criminal cases, or about legislation wending through Albany.”

One reason for the shift was the Times’ evolving web audience. Now a global brand with a legacy print product, the newspaper is hoping to produce news that will resonate with readers around the country and world—not just the guy on the Upper West Side or the woman in Bensonhurst.

This approach, one year later, has yielded powerful, in-depth features like a series examining the lives and deaths of everyone murdered in a Bronx police precinct. It has also, as Spayd warned in 2016, meant less actual news about the five boroughs. When the Times endorsed five City Council candidates in primaries last month, the newspaper was advising readers on races that, with one exception, its reporters had never covered.

A decade ago, the Times still had a reporter assigned to writing dispatches about local political campaigns. Metro coverage once constituted a standalone print section, though it was consolidated in 2008 with the first or “A” section to save costs. On any given weekday, the first section will feature more than 20 pages of news—and only a few that are city-specific.

This has come, in part, because of diminished headcounts. There were close to 90 or so full-time metro reporters a decade ago, according to a knowledgeable source. Now there are around 40.

But the Times, even in its heyday, was never the beating heart of non-Manhattan news coverage. That was the Daily News and, to a lesser extent, the Post. Reflexively liberal but also unafraid to appeal to the more moderate impulses of their many home-owning, outer borough readers, the News was an incredibly influential newspaper—for millions of people, the first (or only thing) they read in a day.

We’re missing out on what issues vibrate in local communities.

Stuart Marques, once a top-ranked editor at the News, recalled that at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, the News staffed 10 or 11 reporters each in their Brooklyn and Queens bureaus. As many as six reporters at the tabloid were assigned full-time to investigations. Reporters were assigned to beats like labor, healthcare, and public universities, in addition to the usual transportation and education coverage. A City Hall bureau that now numbers two reporters once had as many as five.

In 2015, the Daily News closed all its bureaus outside of Manhattan.

“What got covered that doesn’t now? Most community boards. Most local elections,” says Bob Liff, a former Daily News and New York Newsday reporter. “We’re missing out on what issues vibrate in local communities.”

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Jennifer Fermino, the former City Hall bureau chief of the Daily News and, before that, a longtime Post reporter, recalled that her path to a full-time newspaper job at the Post—being paid the minimum wage as a “copy kid”—was being phased out as the 2000s wore on.

“Runners,” young reporters deployed on the beat to grab quotes for stories veteran journalists put together, are also in shorter supply, leaving the tabloids with less of an idea of what New Yorkers on the street think about a particular hot button issue.

“Any time there was a new city policy, I would stand out there, grab people in the street and ask, ‘What do you think of this?’” Fermino recalled. “I think Twitter kind of killed that. People pull quotes from Twitter.”

As the daily newspapers retreat from the boroughs, the pressure has ramped up on local weekly newspapers, websites, and nonprofits to fill the void. Two nonprofits, City Limits and Gotham Gazette, have increasingly made their presences felt by offering the kind of in-depth coverage of local political races and policy that used to be the bread-and-butter of the tabloids and even, long ago, the Times. Politico has grown its New York arm since 2013, focusing on the politics of City Hall and economic development.

City Limits, a nonprofit founded in the 1970s to produce investigative journalism in underserved coverage areas, recently hired a full-time reporter to supplement the work of freelancers who had produced the bulk of coverage. Jarrett Murphy, the editor in chief of City Limits and a former Village Voice reporter, says he was heartened by the diversity and multiplicity of media in New York—but worried about depth of coverage.

“What you have is concentrated firepower on big stories and media organizations all end up covering the same stuff,” Murphy says. “When it comes to the outer boroughs, lesser known stories … you don’t necessarily have people understanding or reporting on what’s going on in different neighborhoods.”

Weekly newspapers in the outer boroughs still cover neighborhoods. Manhattan, too, maintains a strong number of local newspapers for those who don’t only want to read about City Hall, including The Villager, the West Side Spirit, and the Downtown Express. The Lo-Down, a website covering the Lower East Side, broke news last year of a land use scandal that threatened to take down Bill de Blasio’s City Hall.

Brooklyn has a borough-wide chain, Courier-Life Publications, which produces area-specific newspapers like the Brooklyn Paper, Bay Ridge Courier, and Bay News. Traditionally a breeding ground for future Daily News and Post reporters, the chain employs five full-time reporters to cover a borough of two million people.

Courier-Life has been facing competition from BKLYNer, a digital publication that consolidated several neighborhood blogs into a single website. Liena Zagare, BKLYNer’s publisher, says just about every local news player is understaffed, and this has allowed the dozens of politicians on the local and state level to escape serious scrutiny.

“In Brooklyn, there were six incumbents that recently ran and all got re-elected. I don’t think all should’ve gotten reelected and that was due to the lack of in depth coverage of local politics,” Zagare argues.

Zagare makes do with a staff of three full-time reporters, plus freelancers and partnerships with the CUNY journalism school. Though she runs a for-profit organization, she isn’t sure the economic model will be sustainable much longer.

Part of the struggle of local news organizations in New York is the sheer workload placed on a limited number of reporters, typically recent college graduates willing to work for salaries at $30,000 or less. I was one of them, starting out at the Queens Tribune, and it was not uncommon to be writing more than 10 stories in a week.

In such an environment, it’s all but impossible to take the time to write investigative pieces, or even anything longer than 500 words. There’s too much to cover and too few bodies.

I asked my old Tribune colleague, Domenick Rafter, what he thought about the future of local newspapers. Rafter eventually became editor in chief of the Tribune and was an editor for another Queens newspaper, the Chronicle.

Part of the struggle of local news organizations in New York is the sheer workload placed on a limited number of reporters, typically recent college graduates willing to work for salaries at $30,000 or less.

He now works in real estate. “It’s just not sustainable. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it,” Rafter says. “The way local newspapers were always sustainable was local advertising, and now that’s gone. They haven’t figured out how to financially stabilize the situation.”

Queens, almost as large as Brooklyn and just as ethnically diverse, can have more of a suburban feel the further east you go. Mailing addresses are by neighborhood, not borough, and this has incubated an environment of unusually vibrant local news. Four borough-wide weekly newspapers—the Tribune and Chronicle, plus the Courier and Times-Ledger—still joust every week for scoops.

All four newspapers, along with well-known hyperlocal outfits like The Wave in the Rockaways, survive by offering news that can’t be had elsewhere. If the dailies won’t write about neighborhoods like they used to, the weeklies—with their focus on the community boards, block parties, political races, and local schools—can survive by filling the gap left by the former powerhouse newspapers.

But restaurants don’t need newspapers to advertise, and neither do most small businesses, the lifeblood of local news. Rafter says the few advertisers left make increasing demands of editors and reporters. “It’s hard for you to enjoy your job when you’re working on this investigative piece on safety in schools, and you’re taken off the beat to do a story on an advertiser,” he says.

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Gone too, with the retreat of daily newspapers, are mentorship opportunities for the younger reporters from the weeklies. Daily News reporters would share the beat with recent college grads working for local newspapers. They didn’t compete with the veteran reporters as much as learn from them.

Perhaps no borough has been hit hardest by this decline than the Bronx, the poorest of the five. Daily reporting from the Bronx allowed neighborhood stories to be told beyond the usual fare—robberies and murders—and followed an opaque, dynastic political establishment.

Several well-regarded local newspapers cover the Bronx, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Riverdale Press (confined to the tonier western part of the borough), and the Bronx Times, which has a wider coverage area but focuses on the eastern half.

David Cruz, the editor in chief of the Norwood News, a nonprofit rival in the Bronx, lamented that most daily newspapers, without beat reporters, simply focus on Bronx stories with a “blood or guts factor.”

Cruz, like Rafter, was pessimistic about small local papers filling the void left by the dailies, given their financial pressures and lack of reach. A daily newspaper with a circulation in the millions, and staffers to spare, could just do so much more.

“For me, I’m handling five or six beats. I’m not only the editor but I do a lot of the reporting. A lot of time is just spent keeping up,” Cruz says. “You have to be selective about the political stories you cover.”

When the Daily News shut its Bronx bureau, Cruz says, it was a loss the borough may never recover from. “The idea of a big paper not covering the borough is a blow to the discourse,” he says. “Clearly, their priority is not the Bronx.”

ICYMI: Plagiarism scandal hits local newspaper 

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Ross Barkan is a journalist and writer from New York City. He frequently contributes to the Village Voice and his work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire and Reuters.