Meanwhile…

Local newspapers keep dying, and that is very, very bad for democracy.

Academic studies confirm some of our worst fears: for example, civic engagement declines when local newspapers disappear. Municipalities that have lost their newspapers pay higher interest rates when they issue bonds. (When no one is “watching the store,” purchasers of municipal bonds worry about the competence and honesty of the local government that is issuing them, and factor in that concern when setting interest rates.)

Recently, both the New York Times and the Guardian have reported on the demise of local papers. The Guardian reported on the loss of Youngstown, Ohio’s newspaper, The Vindicator.

It was in the late 1920s that the Ku Klux Klan regularly began gathering outside the home of William F Maag Jr in Youngstown. Maag owned the Vindicator newspaper, which unlike others in this once prosperous part of Ohio, had been willing to criticize the racist Klansmen.

Men on horseback, clad in white robes and hoods, would burn crosses and flaunt rifles and shotguns, in an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work. The men of the Maag family would stand outside their home, themselves armed, refusing to be cowed, as the Vindicator continued to expose government officials who were part of the Klan.

That defiance set the tone for decades of investigative, combative reporting from the Vindicator. The daily newspaper relentlessly reported on the mafia, the government, big business and even its own advertisers.

But no more. Soon after celebrating 150 years since its first edition came news that was devastating to many in Youngstown and the wider Mahoning valley. The Vindicator was shutting down at the end of August. For good.

The closure leaves Youngstown as the largest city in the U.S. without a daily newspaper.

According to a study by the University of North Carolina, more than 2,000 US newspapers have closed since 2004, and at least 1,300 communities have completely lost news coverage in the past 15 years. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of working journalists in the U.S. declined 47% between 2008 and 2018.

The Times devoted a special Sunday section to the issue, centering its discussion on the “Dying Gasp of a Local Newspaper,” the weekly Warroad, Minnesota Pioneer.

This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897.

And what about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell?

“Is there going to be somebody to hold their feet to the fire?” asked Tim Bjerk, 51, an in-house photographer at Marvin, the big window and door manufacturer that dominates the town.

The problem is wider than reports of newspaper closures suggest, because the death of journalism isn’t always heralded by a shuttered operation. In my city–Indianapolis–the surviving newspaper (we once had three!) was pretty mediocre even in its heyday. When Gannett purchased it, it went from mediocre to worthless. In an effort to wring every possible penny of profit out of the paper (for which Gannett had wildly overpaid), the company cut costs by firing most of the people who produced the content–the reporters. Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is now nearly non-existent–the paper is now a sorry compendium of nostalgic “looking back” features, coverage of new bars and restaurants and sports, with a very occasional investigative report. (When there is an investigative report, it is revisited ad nauseam for days on end.)

People who want to know what school boards are doing can go to Chalkbeat (if they know it exists); people who need to know what the legislature is doing (and who can afford it) can subscribe to one of the for-profit services issuing statehouse newsletters. The general public, however, is left uninformed–and unaware of what they are uninformed about.

A couple of years ago, the textbook I used in my Media and Public Policy class was titled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?

Americans can still access information about Washington and the world. Information about their local and state governments is another matter entirely. The conduct of state and local government has an immediate and significant effect on citizens– think taxation, policing, education, infrastructure and its maintenance, and the myriad rules that constrain the conduct of our daily lives. Without easily available, objective reporting on the conduct of our elected and appointed officials, they are unaccountable.

At election time, voters are supposed to cast informed ballots. Without local journalism, how can we be informed?

 

16 thoughts on “Meanwhile…

  1. Part of the problem is the ever increasing PRICE of these papers. My part time home, near Madison WI, has one local paper – a bit Republican but that is about all that is left. They just sent me a bill for 494.00. I will NOT be a customer any longer.

  2. The demise of local newspapers has helped shift news hungry folk into the world of internet news and thus the pitfall of confirmation bias. As if that is not enough, local populations no longer are on the same page (pardon the pun) when it comes to local problems and dangers. This vacuum in a shared view of the community and one’s place in that community has driven the divisions in society deeper and wider thus rendering us unable to come together to solve problems.
    Never have the times been more ripe for corruption, fraud, and the dismantling of democracy.

  3. When newspapers leave our cities, what happens to their decades-old news archives? An on-line newspaper subscription I explored did not include access to news archives older than 30 days! I’ve already encountered “disappearance” of archived newspaper articles about controversial topics such as the Occupy Movement.

  4. “Meanwhile…” as late as the early 1970’s here in Indianapolis the Klan was active; burned a cross in the yard of the first black family to move into a northeast side neighborhood. It was during the good times of Jim Jones’ active church here. They protected the family; nothing in the news about the burning or Jones’ help. Working as secretary to the Administrator of Division of Community Services (a division of Mayor Hudnut’s Office); the morning the Guyana tragedy was reported our office staff learned the Director of one of our multi-service centers had been that victim of the cross burning.

    The Facebook attempts to respond to requests to remove offensive posts is questionable at best. I recently received a post claimed to be from a Bernie Supporter group, listed as a humorous post which claimed Joe Biden stated, “It would be an insult to my son’s memory if everyone had health care.” This was damaging to Bernie Sanders and to Joe Biden. I requested the removal because it was a lie; the quote and the source, 2 days later Facebook responded they were looking into my request listed as “This is not SPAM”. The nearly defunct Indianapolis Star right wing political support is no longer even pretending to be covert; I believe the only reason it is still being published is because it is the anchor for Circle Centre Mall. When the Star goes; the Mall will go with it.

    To quote Theresa; “Never have the times been more ripe for corruption, fraud, and the dismantling of democracy.” I find myself more and more going to Google and seeking out Wikipedia for information to support or debunk “news” on the Internet; I miss the Indianapolis Star for obituaries and wrapping garbage.

  5. When the Star was purchased by Gannett, its format suddenly changed. It resembled USA Today, which is also owned by Gannett. I assumed at the time that the change was for two reasons. First, it was cheaper to piggyback USA Today material than to generate local material, and second, the format of even the local stories came to resemble the ads, so sometimes I had to look twice to see if it was worth reading what was on a page.

    But the decline started earlier. When there was an afternoon paper (The News) it differed a bit from the Star – not quite as reactionary politically. Both papers had a crossword puzzle, but the Star’s was harder. When the News folded, the Star started carrying the easier puzzle. It’s old puzzle wasn’t really hard, but it was harder. I guess someone decided an easier paper would make the Star’s readers more complacent.

  6. Pascal; both the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News were owned by Eugene Pullium. Probably a money-saving effort to combine both newspapers after the Indianapolis Times ceased publication. The Indianapolis News was no longer needed to compete with the Times’ less conservative reporting of all news giving Pullium ownership of daily news reporting here.

  7. Do you allow paragraphs from your daily email column to be quoted in local papers? I would like to copy the last 2 paragraphs from today, August 31, 2019, and send it to our new subscription-only newspaper.

    I am a subscriber to your daily column. Today when you wrote about the loss of community news, I totally identified with the problems you described.
    Indianola, Iowa fits into the picture of a small town that over a short period of time lost it’s always meager weekly newspaper, “The Record Herald” – it was “sponsored” by the Des Moines Register and finally chewed up and spit out.

    The former editor of the Herald has formed a new news outlet, “The Advocate”, with a $100.00 annual subscription rate. With your permission, I will send your paragraphs to The Advocate.

  8. It’s time to come face to face with our “brave new world.” Yes, we are losing newspapers as so-called news comes to us from the internet. That’s not all we will be losing. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost to robotics and artificial intelligence. How will we cope? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that we had better start looking for them sooner rather than later. I nominate Andrew Yang for Secretary of Commerce.

  9. This is a reply to Donna Wheeler, but intended as a blanket “permission” to any reader who wishes to share all or part of this or any post: feel free to do so. My only request is for attribution. My goal with this blog is communication; that means that comments and sharing are not only allowed, but encouraged and appreciated!

  10. For national and international news, I’ve found ‘The Guardian’ (from Manchester, Eng.) to be top notch, and it’s totally accessible without subscription cost. Yes, they want you to subscribe and pay an annual price for that ($69.95), but moochers can read all they want. No cookies are counted.
    For the state, I’ve found the Ft. Wayne Journal-Gazette is now the premiere paper for Indiana news. They do report on most of the politics and news of Indy and the state. Again, no subscription cost is charged – the advertising seemingly pays the bills. And, they have a full time reporter in Indy, Niki Kelly, who is also a permanent panelist on Indiana Week in Review.
    So, news IS there — it’s just a different construction of ‘news’ now. And the local obituaries and high school sports stories? Here’s how The Blufftion News-Banner does that. The obituaries are free and open to all. This is for the Wells Co. snowbirds and emigrants to everywhere. But, any other section of the paper is by subscription. I, for one, am very appreciative of them letting me read the obits everyday. I’m at the age where my classmates are dying now, and I really appreciate knowing this.

  11. The loss and degradation of our newspapers is partly political, partly technological and partly societal. When so many are working two jobs, have not been encouraged to read while in school and a covered up with the myriad of electronic “toys”, the old-fashioned morning paper with a cup of coffee is going the way of our civic decency.

    Then, of course, we have the porcine president telling anyone who will listen that the news is fake and that the press is the enemy of the people – very Hitlerian, don’t you think?

  12. For “The Guardian” fan, I never understood when the Star went online and started to give away their content for free. If The Guardian can make it work, then power to them.

    I only pay for a Indy Star subscription because it has terrific comics pages. I pay for my news with a subscription to the New York Times, and the Indianapolis Business Journal. I recently read a terrific story about the Bloomington Farmer Market and racism in the NYTs, that the Indy star never touched.

    Sheila is spot on with her critique of the Indy Star! Before Gannet bought the Star and the Star still had real content I would travel and occasionally get a copy of USA Today. I always told my wife USA Today was “news lite”. You would get a hint of the stories, but no real content, detail, or research. Giving away content, and then cutting back on the content is a death spiral for a newspaper.

  13. Think we may need to move to new models for local news. Think we need to sic “liberal arts entrepreneurs” onto this to invent “unions” or other communities of accredited local journalists to keep an eye on local issues and spread truth. Then, “news consumers” across the country can buy reasonably priced subscriptions for their locale. They would also be able to access related news/opinion from other places, as a bonus.

    Smart other folks on this blog – WEIGH IN! (perfect exercise for Labor Day!)

  14. You can point the finger at Bill Clinton when he signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Restrictions on mergers were lifted. An article in Truthout had this to say in 2016:

    Twenty years later the devastating impact of the legislation is undeniable: About 90 percent of the country’s major media companies are owned by six corporations. Bill Clinton’s legacy in empowering the consolidation of corporate media is right up there with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform, as being among the most tragic and destructive policies of his administration.

    In 1983, Ben Bagdikian published his groundbreaking book, The Media Monopoly, which revealed that just 50 corporations owned 90 percent of the media. That number gradually dwindled over the coming 13 years and was accelerated by the Telecommunications Act. This has led us to the aforementioned crisis where more than 90 percent of the media is owned by just six companies: Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney.

    Radio has seen an equally appalling consolidation, which has been horrendous for both news media and music. In 1995, before the Telecommunications Act was passed, companies were not allowed to own more than 40 radio stations. “Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel [now called iHeartMedia] has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations – 30 times more than congressional regulation previously allowed,” according to a report from the Future of Music Coalition.

    Local newspapers, too, have been stung by these deregulations. Gannett, for instance, owns more than 1,000 newspapers and 600 print periodicals. Layoffs have been the norm for the company, including at USA Today, the paper with the largest circulation in the country, where layoffs were described as a “total bloodbath” in the American Journalism.
    https://truthout.org/articles/democracy-in-peril-twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-under-the-telecommunications-act/

    Just today I learned of another big media merger looms: From Credo –

    CBS and Viacom recently announced plans to combine into one company. The result – as always – will be higher prices, fewer jobs, more corporate control and less choice.

    Media consolidation is already hurting our democracy and consumer choices. AT&T bought DirectTV and then Warner Media. Disney purchased FOX. A small handful of corporate media companies control movies, TV and news reporting – not to mention cable television and mobile and wired internet access.

  15. The other day on NPR the owner of the Youngstown newspaper was being interviewed about shutting down. Apparently they still had many reporters covering local and state news, which is highly unusual. The cost to maintain the quality of their news and stories had become too much for the owner to bear.

    In short, they lost too many subscribers and advertisers over the years due to manufacturers closing or leaving town. Job losses forced people to move to find employment. The loss of a couple of the last few large employers in town in the past two to five years seemed to drive the last nails into their coffin.

    In Wabash County (where I reside) the local daily paper was sold to Ganette years ago. It had become overpriced and worthless even before it was sold. There is a local free weekly newspaper that is delivered to all homes in the county. The family that started it 35-40 years ago sold it last Spring. It is basically the same, but obituaries are now published 10 days to 2 weeks after death. I have not had the time to call them to ask why they no longer publish them in a timely manner.

  16. The gradual disappearance of watchdogs will have a profoundly negative effect upon the extent to which politicians of every stripe feel compelled to act honestly. A watched pot never boils over.

    Not mentioned in the discussion, but relevant, is/was Nuvo. It folded for economic reasons, too.

    What to do? I suggest that the Pulitzer Foundation run an essay contest, asking “What can we do to augment the watchdog function of newspapers; sustainably, constitutionally, and in a manner that forecloses government manipulation of the process established?” Everything is on the table. The question is NOT “How do we prop up newspapers?” The answer may be a different business from journalism as we know it. The method of funding is on the table. Subscription? Advertising? Subsidization (and by whom or what)? Can/should/could the method involve government itself? For example, in parliamentary systems, there is a shadow government in existence at all times on the opposition bench, and each person who occupies a shadow position keeps himself informed about what his opposite number is doing. If the government member missteps, he can expect a tart question or two during “question time” on the floor of the parliament. We don’t have that tradition. Maybe we need it. My underlying point is, however, that our nation must apply its best minds to crafting a solution to this creeping problem rather than just wringing its hands about the unwatched pot.

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