Tag Archives: newspapers

It Isn’t Just Gannett

The consolidation of the country’s newspapers has been a preoccupation of  Americans who recognize the extreme importance of “the press”-who appreciate the outsized role that journalism plays in community and self-government. Large-scale, rapacious companies like Gannett (see yesterday’s post) have been the target of withering criticism for years.

But there’s a difference between corporations like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital.

Gannett and its ilk were convinced that they could operate newspapers more efficiently–that they could do more–or at least as much– with less, and thereby continue to enjoy the high profit margins that the industry used to provide. Quality journalism was secondary–it was just the widget/product that happened to generate the all-important profits. (The fact that the company greatly overpaid for many of the papers it purchased made that optimism unrealistic.) Their first loyalty was–and is– to the bottom line, but they at least give lip service to the importance of journalism.

Hedge funds like Alden never bothered; they’ve simply “strip mined” the newspapers they’ve purchased–intentionally destroying them. As the linked article puts it, these funds are composed of

investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self

The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital. Since they bought their first newspapers a decade ago, no one has been more mercenary or less interested in pretending to care about their publications’ long-term health. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that Alden-owned newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of their competitors; not coincidentally, circulation has fallen faster too, according to Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst who reviewed data from some of the papers. That might sound like a losing formula, but these papers don’t have to become sustainable businesses for Smith and Freeman to make money.

Alden’s aggressive cost-cutting makes Gannett look generous. The hedge fund has found a financially-rewarding formula: it continues to operate the newspapers it acquires at a profit for a few years, but during those years, it turns out a steadily worsening product and alienates subscribers.

This investment strategy does not come without social consequences. When a local newspaper vanishes, research shows, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagement. Misinformation proliferates. City budgets balloon, along with corruption and dysfunction. The consequences can influence national politics as well; an analysis by Politico found that Donald Trump performed best during the 2016 election in places with limited access to local news.

With its acquisition of Tribune Publishing earlier this year, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers, including some of the country’s most famous and influential: the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News. It is the nation’s second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Some in the industry say they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith and Freeman end up becoming the biggest newspaper moguls in U.S. history.

The linked article describes what happens after an acquisition by Alden, telling the stories of specific newspapers, the people who worked at them, and the cities and towns they no longer serve. It also profiles the men who run Alden–men who proudly identify themselves as “vulture capitalists” and who are identified by others as the “grim reapers” of journalism.( At least one of them–unsurprisingly–is a  major supporter of Donald Trump, whose constant attacks on the news alarmed people who understood the importance of journalism to democratic governance.)

I cannot do justice to the Atlantic’s thorough and meticulous reporting in a brief blog post. Everyone reading this should click through and read the well-researched and eye-opening article in its entirety.

The crisis in local journalism has been the subject of concern and debate for well over a decade. We are now at a point where–in the absence of viable replacements for what has been lost–repairing the damage to governance and community will be difficult to impossible to achieve.

I never imagined quoting Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, but without a robust and vigorous press, we won’t know what we don’t know.

If American democracy collapses, Mitch McConnell and the sniveling invertebrates in the  GOP will share responsibility with vulture capitalists like Alden Global Capital.

About That Dead Horse….

America faces a raft of very serious problems. This blog routinely pontificates about them–usually by citing from various media resources that have highlighted them. Over the past several years I have become increasingly convinced that it is the state of that media–especially its fragmented nature–that has exacerbated all of them.

That conviction won’t come as a surprise to longtime readers of this blog–it’s the “dead horse” I’ve been flogging for years.

The Pew Research Center recently issued a report on the current nature of what we like to call traditional media–primarily newspapers and broadcast (radio and television). For the first time, newspapers made more money from individual subscriptions than from advertising. That looks superficially like good news, but is really a reflection of the extent to which the business model that sustained those newspapers over the years has collapsed.

That collapse is why more than 2000 local newspapers have ceased publication during the past decade, and one of the reasons (along with their acquisition by greedy national companies)  why so many of those that remain have been able to maintain only skeletal reporting staffs.

Yes, national papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been able to maintain and even grow  both their reporting staffs and their subscribers, but in the cities and towns where citizens depend upon the press for the incredibly important watchdog function, these “ghost” papers no longer have the capacity to do so.

I’ve ranted about all of this in previous posts–flogging that “dead horse”–and noting the multiple consequences, but I keep coming back to what is, in my view, the most significant problem created by our current media environment: the facilitation of informational silos. Bubbles enable us to confirm our pre-existing biases, and–perhaps even worse– to avoid recognizing what we don’t know.

As I used to tell my students, even newspapers that were never particularly good–the Indianapolis Star comes to mind–served one very important function: they provided the citizens of a community with a common description of their local reality. Even if you only picked up the newspaper to see sports scores, you saw the same headlines your neighbors saw. The local school board was embroiled in a debate. Local crime rates had increased. The city was issuing bonds for a new library, and that might affect your property tax rate.

Whatever.

Today, good luck scanning the Indianapolis Star for education news– reporters will cover school board meetings only when enraged racists descend on board meetings to demand that schools stop teaching something they don’t teach anyway. If you want to know anything else about education policy, you need to go to sources like Chalkbeat, an online media resource covering education.

And that’s the problem.

In various conversations, I’ve asked people if they have ever heard of Chalkbeat–or a few of the other specialized sources that cover discrete areas of our common life. Very few have. We are at a point where the information we need in order to be minimally-informed citizens is “out there,” but only available to those who know enough–and are motivated enough–to search for it.

You may not have children in school, but what the local school board does affects your property values. You may be disinterested in the proceedings of your local department of transportation, but those proceedings will determine the condition of the streets you drive on. You may not care about the financial woes of a local hospital, but if you have a health emergency, those woes will suddenly become relevant.

Etcetera, etcetera.

Look–I’m not one of those people who looks back fondly at a past that never existed. I know that most people, even those who subscribed to local papers, tended to skim over the articles that didn’t interest them. For that matter, a lot of folks didn’t even subscribe–at best, they tuned in to the local TV news at dinnertime to hear brief summaries that the stations had usually gotten from the local newspapers. The point is, they saw the same headlines. They heard the same summaries.

They might argue over the accuracy of the reporting, or what it meant, but they shared a common starting-point.

The absence of local, in-depth news contributes to American polarization by  nationalizing news consumption. Pew found that in 2020,  Fox News’ prime time average audience increased by 61%, CNN’s increased by 72% and MSNBC’s grew by 28%.

Perhaps what we need are local versions of aggregators like the Huffington Post–one-stop “entry points” with short blurbs and links to the specialized sites that are doing credible, professional reporting on particular slices of what should be our common civic concerns.

National news is important–but so is verifiable, credible scrutiny of local governments and civic organizations.

 

The Death Of Local News

A recent story in the Statehouse File began with an all-too-familiar report.

Two years ago, Indiana had 70 daily newspapers. Now there are fewer than 50, and over the last year, 13 paid circulation newspapers in the state closed their doors.

The story relayed the personal experience of editors and others at the papers that closed, and went on enumerate the consequences for local communities that have lost their newspapers–either entirely, or by “ghosting” in the wake of acquisitions by companies like Gannett (now part of the even more rapacious Gatehouse).

Citizens who have lost what we used to call “watchdog journalism” are significantly disadvantaged by not knowing what is going on in their communities. Studies show losses in community cohesion, voter turnout and civic participation. Taxpayers take a hit, too– a recent study, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” showed that newspaper closures were followed by higher costs of issuing bonds. (Presumably, bond purchasers anticipate a higher degree of risk when no one is watching the store.)

It isn’t just Indiana. The Guardian recently considered the threat to journalism’s future posed by the degree to which hedge funds are snapping up distressed properties.

As the pandemic recedes in the United States, few businesses may emerge so transformed as local and regional newspapers.

More than 70 local newsrooms have closed over the past 15 months, with hundreds of media jobs lost, as the already difficult financial conditions in the industry intensified during the crisis. By some estimates, a staggering 2,100 local newspapers, or one in four, have closed in the US since 2005.

But into the carnage a new breed of owner has emerged: one that has industry veterans and media observers deeply worried about the future of journalism in America and its ability to act as part of a functioning democracy.

According to a recent analysis, hedge funds or private equity firms now control half of US daily newspapers, including some of the largest newspaper groups in the country: Tribune, McClatchy and MediaNews Group.

Needless to say, these hedge funds have zero commitment to journalism. Their entire focus is on the bottom line and the return on their investments. Groups like Alden Capital have earned a reputation for ruthlessness by dramatically cutting editorial staff and selling off assets to boost profits.

As the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review has noted,

The debate we need to have is do we value these newspapers as an investment like a car dealership or a pawn shop, or do they have a different function in the community? I argue that they do, and they’re important to the way we function every day, but local communities need to buy into that idea.

If professional, verifiable news gathering is lost, a significant percentage of the American public will be left to the not-so-tender-mercies of the Breitbarts and their leftwing analogs.  Aside from bias, these outlets add to the increasing nationalization of news and politics–they aren’t replacing the local newspapers we’ve lost.

It will be interesting to see what happens in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the  New York Times reports that– following the “ghosting” of the Standard Times, the local paper, employees decided to create an alternative. They created a digital paper, The New Bedford Light.

The Light, which has no print edition, is free to readers. It does not accept advertising, relying on donations, grants and sponsorships from local businesses. It plans deep community involvement, including media literacy workshops for residents who might become contributors.

It is largely following a playbook for digital nonprofit news sites prepared by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a group that guides start-ups and emphasizes editorial independence and financial transparency.

According to the Times, similar nonprofit news sites are appearing across the country. There are hundreds now online, and more than 50 have gone up in the last two years.

None, to the best of my knowledge, have emerged in Indiana.

For those of us who are determined to figure out what’s going on in our city and state, there are  reliable, specialized sources we can consult. What we don’t have, however, is a “one-stop” source that doesn’t just give us the news we are looking for, but the answers to  questions it wouldn’t occur to us to ask–and an explanation of why we should care.

What we also don’t have are substantial numbers of citizens who read the same headlines and stories, and as a result, occupy the same reality.

As we are seeing with the Big Lie, it’s one thing to argue about what a particular fact means; it’s another matter altogether to argue about a “fact” you’ve invented. The first argument strengthens democracy; the second one justifies democracy’s abandonment.

 

 

 

The Crux Of The Problem

I was reading an article about Substack–the digital platform that has increasingly recruited media personnel to write newsletters for which recipients pay. (The only one I receive is the free version of Heather Cox Richardson’s.) The article considered Substack’s claim to be the “future of journalism.”

If that claim intrigues you, you should click through and read the whole article, which was interesting. But it was the very last sentence that grabbed me, because it is, in my opinion, the crux of the problem–“the problem” being America’s deep and growing polarization.

How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

As regular readers of this blog know, for several years, I taught a university course in Media and Public Affairs, and I was fond of complaining that every time I taught that course, our constantly-morphing media environment required a new preparation.  It isn’t simply “a media landscape comprised of individual writers and their followers”–it is a dramatically fragmented media landscape that includes not just those individuals (with their individual and contending “takes” on the news of the day) but literally hundreds of media news sites focused upon different aspects of human activity, and doing so through a lens of different partisan and ideological commitments.

As I used to tell my students, this is truly uncharted territory. When printed-on-paper newspapers and three television networks served communities, residents of those communities at least occupied the same news environment. Good or bad, right or wrong, the local newspaper provided the only reporting most of us saw. Even if some people picked up the paper only to look for sports scores or wedding announcements or whatever, they had to browse past the same headlines that their friends and neighbors were seeing. 

People in a given city or town thus occupied the same general reality.

The same phenomenon played out on a national scale. Edward R. Murrow and his two counterparts delivered much the same information to a majority of Americans via the evening news on television, and a few “national” magazines and newspapers–notably the New York Times and the Washington Post–homogenized the national news.

Those days are long gone.

One of the books I urged my media and policy students to read was The Filter Bubble.It was an early analysis of the most challenging effect of the online media environment–our new ability to “shop” for news that feeds our preconceptions, and to construct a “bubble” within which we are comfortable. (As I used to tell my students, if you want to believe that the aliens really did land in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites offering pictures of the aliens…)

The angry souls who want to believe that the election was stolen and Donald Trump really won can find sites that reinforce that fantasy. People susceptible to conspiracy theories can  find “evidence” that Hillary Clinton is abusing and eating small children in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, or confirmation that those California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. Whatever the deficits of newspapers “back in the day”–and those deficits were very real–this sort of “reporting” was relegated to widely-scorned rags like the National Enquirer that graced supermarket checkout counters. (My favorite headline: Osama and Saddam’s Gay Wedding.)

When the digital counterparts of those scandal sheets are visually indistinguishable from credible sites, not to mention easily and privately accessed (your neighbor isn’t watching you purchase the Enquirer as you check out), is it any wonder that the very human trait of confirmation bias leads us to occupy different–and incommensurate–realities?

And if that’s where we are– if Americans currently reside in dramatically different realities– how will we ever be able to talk to each other?

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?