Tag Archives: Gannett

What We Lose When We Lose Local News

We live in a time of multiple crises, and–like all such times–there are a number of contributing causes. Arguably, one major contributor to Americans’ current inability to work together or even communicate is the media environment we inhabit.

Much has been written about disinformation and our improved ability to live in informational “bubbles.” Other consequences have received less attention.

That’s especially true when the loss is local–and it is at the local level where we have lost the most. Between newspaper closures (since 2004, the United States has lost a quarter— 2,100 – of its local newspapers, including 70 dailies and over 2,000 weeklies) and so-called  “ghost” papers–newspapers that are theoretically still functioning, but no longer have the ability to adequately cover local news–the situation at the local level is grim.

A recent article in the Atlantic focused on what we lose when we lose local news. “What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town,” was a “deep dive” into the loss of The Hawk Eye, a newspaper in Burlington, Iowa.

As the author noted, in her youth, the local newspaper was where teenagers looked for summer jobs, families found weekend tag sales and folks learned about openings of new stores and restaurants. “The paper was where we first learned that my close friend’s father had died in a Mississippi water-skiing accident. It was where my high-school Girl Scout troop got a half-page spread our senior year.”

Larger metropolitan papers ran fewer of those more homey items, but gave residents “news you can use” about local government agencies, schools and the goings-on at the State legislature. In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of residents once read the morning paper, and thus–as I have previously noted–occupied a common information environment.

The Indianapolis Star was never a particularly distinguished example of journalism, but after it was acquired by Gannett, it descended into irrelevance. The Hawk Eye may have served a small Iowa town, but the author’s description of what happened in the wake of its purchase by Gannett could have been written here.

The Hawk Eye isn’t dead yet, which sets it apart from many other local newspapers in America. Its staff, now down to three overstretched news reporters, still produces a print edition six days a week. But the paper is dying. Its pages are smaller than they used to be, and there are fewer of them. Even so, wide margins and large fonts are used to fill space. The paper is laid out by a remote design team and printed 100 miles away in Peoria, Illinois; if a reader doesn’t get her paper in the morning, she is instructed to dial a number that will connect her to a call center in the Philippines. Obituaries used to be free; now, when your uncle dies, you have to pay to publish a write-up.

These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as The Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The Opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists.

Why does this matter?

Research confirms that the loss of a properly functioning local paper leads to diminished participation in municipal elections, which become less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, driving costs up for local government. Disinformation proliferates because people start to get their “facts” from social media.

But as the author notes, the decline of The Hawk Eye also revealed a quieter, less quantifiable change.

When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days.

These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

The stories that connect the residents of larger cities and towns may differ from those she describes, but they are equally important. And thanks to rapacious companies like Gannett, they’ve been equally lost.

And then there’s Alden Global Capital, which I’ll discuss tomorrow….

 

No News Is Definitely NOT Good News

Indianapolis, Indiana used to have three newspapers. Little by little, we lost them–the Indianapolis Times went first, then the Indianapolis News, the evening paper, “merged” with the co-owned morning Star. Then Gannett bought the Star, and changed what had been a mediocre newspaper into a worthless compendium of sports columns and stories about new bars in town, wrapped around a daily “McPaper”–aka USA Today.

Gannett’s ownership led to a constant series of layoffs and outsourcing. The layoffs and firings decimated the news staff, with those having institutional memory going first, and the outsourcing of copy editing multiplied the number of misspellings and textual gaffes. All of this seemed–and still seems–insane to me: the only thing news organizations have to sell is news content; it makes no sense to save money by reducing your ability to produce the quality and quantity of what you are selling.

Now, a new organization evidently wants to buy Gannett. Ordinarily, I’d be delighted, but evidently, the potential buyer is even less interested in producing news than Gannett. According to a column in the Washington Post,

Print revenue is down, digital and mobile revenue aren’t nearly enough, and now a hedge fund promising even deeper cuts wants to acquire the company. If the future of corporate news operations looks bleak, that’s because it is.

In Tennessee, we’ve been watching the slow-motion destruction of our news institutions under Gannett for a few decades now, and the idea that things are about to get even worse is appalling. As badly as the country needs strong coverage of national news these days, the local news landscape is important, too. And what happened here mirrors what’s already happened in city after city.

The story of what happened in Tennessee mirrors what happened in Indianapolis.

In July, for example, local hospital operators LifePoint Health and RCCH HealthCare Partners merged in a nearly $6 billion deal that affected roughly 1,000 local employees. The Tennessean covered the story with an Associated Press dispatch written in New York, followed by a local rewriteof a news release at the end of the day. There was no follow-up coverage despite LifePoint’s founder receiving a $70 million exit package and 250 jobs getting eliminated.

In Indianapolis, the locally-owned Indianapolis Business Journal (disclosure: I write a column for the IBJ) does a good job of covering the business community. (It actually does a better job of covering state and local government than the Star, but that’s not its primary mission and being better than the Star is to clear a low bar.) Nuvo, our alternative weekly newspaper, does excellent reporting on selected scandalous or corrupt matters, but doesn’t have the resources to provide the sort of comprehensive coverage we used to get from daily papers. Thanks to the Star’s shortcomings, citizens of Indianapolis get only the most superficial coverage of state government, the legislature and city agencies.

And it matters.

When no one is watching the store, there is no way to evaluate whether  or how local officials are doing their jobs. There’s no “early warning system” allowing citizens to object to changing rules. There’s no authoritative, trusted source to rebut or confirm rumors or conspiracy theories.

It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of the cited article:

All over America, we need something different: We need more reporters covering the issues that matter to our communities. We need to stem the crisis in statehouse reporting; here in Nashville, the Capitol Hill press corps has dwindled from 35 to just 10 over a few decades. We need more investigative power to follow the billions of dollars spent by state and local governments, often with little oversight. We need competition in places where corporate news has carved out monopolies and let local news wither.

 And we need to do it fast, because the butchers are sharpening their knives.

No news is definitely not good news.

 

Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?

The title of this post is the title of the textbook I plan to use in the fall, in my class on Media and Public Affairs. Unfortunately, the message it conveys–traditional media is dying–gets truer every day.

Yesterday, the Indianapolis Star announced that 60 employees were being let go. This is in addition to prior downsizing that has already resulted in a newspaper hardly worth the name.

Of course, the Star is not alone; its parent company, Gannett, has cut jobs across the board (while awarding its CEO a bonus of 1.25 million and doubling his salary just last March).

Without going into my usual rant about corporate ownership of the media, and the huge, unnecessary debt acquired during those acquisitions, let me simply share a personal anecdote that illustrates what’s wrong with trying to “save” newspapers by cutting staff.

A couple of weeks ago, I went online, and finally stopped my subscription to the Star. Someone from the sales office called, and offered me a discounted price if I would continue my subscription (clearly, they need to be able to show advertisers numbers–they’d probably have given it to me free if I’d asked). I said thanks but no thanks, at which point the salesperson asked why I was discontinuing the paper after so many years. I explained that I no longer found much worth reading in it–the paper was thinner every day, the proportion of actual news to “human interest” and “how to” stories was unacceptably low, and coverage of local and state government had become totally inadequate. With respect to national news, by the time the Star ran the few items that still made it into the paper, I’d already heard or seen them.

In short, there is no longer any “there” there.

Cutting staff will simply exacerbate this vicious downward cycle, and hasten the day that the newspaper simply ceases publication. When that day comes, I am pained to admit that there will be little of value left to lose.

The bigger question is: what will take its place? How can we rejuvenate journalism? There are more and more outlets–web sites, blogs, cable TV, radio–offering various kinds of information of widely varying quality, but there is on balance more noise, more celebrity gossip, more emphasis on sex and scandal, and less and less actual news. The question–to which we seemingly have no answer–is “who will watch local, state and national governments? Who will tell us the things we truly need to know if we are to be informed citizens?

What will happen when the last reporter turns out the lights?