The Media Today

Times-Picayune sale and Wall Street Journal story highlight the grim state of local news

May 6, 2019

The New Orleans Times-Picayune is about to disappear. Late last week, Dathel and John Georges, who own the rival New Orleans Advocate, bought the Times-Picayune from Advance Local Media, an arm of the Newhouse family’s media empire, and announced their intention to merge the papers under a single masthead and website. The new entity will debut in June. In the meantime, all 161 of the Times-Picayune’s staff—including 65 reporters and editors—will be laid off. Some of those affected will land at the new paper, but it’s not yet clear how many.

The news from New Orleans served as a particularly on-the-nose reminder of the dire state of the local news ecosystem in the US. Randy Siegel, CEO of Advance Local, assured the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly that the sale of the Times-Picayune was a “one-off”; nonetheless, the move spooked staffers at other Advance papers, which include the Staten Island Advance and Newark Star-Ledger. As with many other local titles, the Times-Picayune’s circulation has taken a hammering in recent years. Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the paper—which won two Pulitzers for its Katrina coverage—has seen its circulation decline by about three-quarters, from over 250,000 to less than 90,000. As Vice’s David Uberti notes, “management decisions in response have mimicked those of many local newspapers inching their way toward extinction-level events.” In 2012, the paper axed about 200 employees and cut print delivery to three days a week as part of a pivot to digital. Now comes the extinction, or something close to it.

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On Saturday, two days after the news came through from New Orleans, The Wall Street Journal zoomed right out on the local-news picture. For a print story and slick online graphics package, Keach Hagey, Lukas I. Alpert, and Yaryna Serkez crunched circulation, financial, and employment data to lay bare the “stark divide” that has emerged “between a handful of national players that have managed to stabilize their businesses and local outlets for which time is running out.” Citing research conducted at the University of North Carolina, Hagey, Alpert, and Serkez report that nearly 1,800 US newspapers shut down between 2004 and 2018. Nicco Mele, outgoing director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, predicts that half of remaining titles will disappear within the next two years.

As the Journal’s reporting makes clear, local newspapers have suffered at least a triple whammy in recent years. National competitors have not been immune to these blows, but they have not sustained equal damage. The Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post saw an average circulation drop of 29 percent between 2012 and 2018. The (median) figure for major metro papers was 41 percent; for mid-sized papers (with circulations between 100,000 and 200,000) it was 45 percent. Facebook and Google, who have come to dominate the online advertising game, have sucked up 58 percent of digital ad revenue nationally; in local markets, that figure rises to 77 percent. And while the Journal and the Times have had success converting online readers to paying digital subscribers, local outlets have struggled to follow suit. Gannett, owner of USA Today and a chain of local titles (and by far the biggest US media company by circulation), has an overall conversion rate of just 0.4 percent.

Some local titles are doing better: The Boston Globe, for instance, says its newsroom is currently sustainable on digital subscriber revenue alone. The picture in New Orleans, too, is complicated. The Times-Picayune isn’t being stripped for parts by a ruthless private-equity firm, but rather incorporated by a successful, locally-owned competitor—the Advocate, whose main title is based in Baton Rouge, expanded into New Orleans relatively recently and won a first Pulitzer Prize this year.

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Nonetheless, the situation at the Times-Picayune is a clear example of many of the malign trends the Journal’s reporting highlights. These trends are very familiar to anyone following, or working in, the US news scene. Marinating in bad news, however, can inure us to it. Simple, clear explainers like the Journal’s deep dive force us to step back and confront the bigger picture. In doing so, they often land more forcefully than the daily accumulation of grim examples.

Below, more on local news:

  • Public complacency: A particularly shocking stat from the Journal piece: “A recent Pew study found that 71 percent of Americans believed local news outlets were doing well financially, though only 14 percent actually paid for local news.”
  • Dallas downer: The Journal mentions the example of The Dallas Morning News, which became the first major regional title in the US to institute an online paywall in 2011, but has struggled to make that strategy pay since then. The paper has cut more than 170 employees in the past 15 months. After 43 staffers lost their jobs in January, Emily Goldstein weighed the beat expertise being lost for CJR.
  • Desert life: In CJR’s most recent print issue, we assessed what it’s like to live in a “news desert,” compiling data from 10 counties across the country where no general news publication exists. The findings make for grim reading.
  • Buffeting winds: Late last month, Warren Buffett, whose company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns local titles including the Omaha World-Herald and Buffalo News, told Yahoo Finance that the newspaper business model is “toast.”

Other notable stories:

  • Late last week, Facebook banned accounts and content linked to the likes of Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Laura Loomer. As CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes, it looked like a transparent PR move and even then Facebook bungled it, lifting an embargo on the news before it had taken down all the accounts affected. The bans sparked a weekend of recrimination and debate—not least on the president’s Twitter account, where Trump stuck up for Paul Joseph Watson (banned from Facebook), James Woods (temporarily blocked on Twitter), and other conservative media stars. On CNN yesterday, Brian Stelter called Trump “the Infowars president.”
  • The Times’s John Koblin and Michael M. Grynbaum preview a shake-up at CBS, where Susan Zirinsky is expected to reshuffle her on-air talent for the first time since she was named president of the news division in January. Gayle King will reportedly stay on as “the centerpiece” of CBS This Morning; she’s set to be joined by Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil, with current co-hosts John Dickerson and Norah O’Donnell moving over to 60 Minutes and CBS Evening News, respectively. It’s not yet clear what will happen to Jeff Glor, the current Evening News host. Clarification could come as soon as today.
  • Last week, the Post pipped the Times to the news that Robert Mueller wrote to William Barr, in late March, to complain about Barr’s initial public framing of the Mueller report. According to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, reporters at the Times suspect the Department of Justice gave the Post the scoop to screw the Times and “teach [Times reporter Michael S.] Schmidt a lesson.” The Post says it was already on the story. Either way, the episode has inflamed tensions between the DoJ and Times reporters who cover it.
  • The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Lloyd Grove chart the “professional rehabilitation campaign” of Mark Halperin, the political commentator whose career was putatively ended, in 2017, after nine women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. In recent weeks, Halperin has started tweeting and blogging again and has appeared on Michael Smerconish’s SiriusXM show, with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski reportedly offering “moral support and more concrete assistance.” Smerconish says Halperin “seems genuinely sorry for what he did”; three of his accusers, however, tell the Post’s Paul Farhi that Halperin has not apologized to them.
  • For CJR, Nina Jankowicz assesses what US media can learn from the recent presidential election in Ukraine, where Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian who played a fictional president on TV, was elected in real life. “Ukraine and the United States are plagued by the same disease: a constant desire for and gratification through flashy, dubiously motivated infotainment in place of carefully sourced information provided for the public good,” Jankowicz writes.
  • India is in the midst of a “WhatsApp election,” the Financial Times’s Madhumita Murgia, Stephanie Findlay, and Andres Schipani report. With more than 300 million Indians active on the platform, the ruling Bharatiya Janata party “is using WhatsApp to wage one of the world’s most sophisticated digital political campaigns.” Given its encrypted, group-based structure, many observers fear WhatsApp has become “an impossible to monitor conduit for fake news”—a role it played in Brazil’s elections last year.
  • According to The Guardian’s Jim Waterson, Lionel Barber will soon step down as editor of the Financial Times after 14 years in post. “During that time, he has overseen the company’s successful transition into an online publisher and its sale by Pearson to the Japanese media company Nikkei, and is about to complete the process of moving the FT back to Bracken House in the City of London.” It’s not yet clear who will succeed him.
  • For CJR, Madeleine Wattenbarger writes that hyperlocal community radio stations have found themselves on the front lines of Mexico’s struggle for a free press. According to one freedom of expression non-profit, “Community radio’s role in indigenous struggles for recognition and land rights ‘has made them an object of repression and violence’ by ‘state actors, economic interests and organized crime.’” Several community radio journalists have been murdered this year.
  • And Rachel Held Evans, the progressive Christian writer whose work challenged traditional evangelical culture, died on Saturday. She was 37. “She wrote about biblical literalism, racism, abortion, evolution, theology, marriage, patriarchy, women in leadership, and evangelical support for Donald Trump,” Slate’s Ruth Graham reports. “She advocated for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church and analyzed her own complicity in racial bias after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.