Can We Fix the Local News Crisis, Margaret Sullivan Asks

What’s the media’s biggest problem? Is it the proliferation of fake news, the fleeting revenue or audiences’ declining trust in the news?

None of the above, says Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, in her new book “Ghosting the News.” The biggest problem with the media today is the devastation of local news.

She lays out the local news landscape, and it’s dismal. Since 2004, over two thousand local news outlets have shut down and many others are skeletons of what they once were. Advertising revenue for newspapers has fallen from $49 million in 2006 to only $14 million in 2018. Between 2004 and 2015, over 1,800 print publications were lost due to closures and mergers. And newspapers across the country have cut over 45 percent of their newsroom staff since 2008.

Sullivan looks to Denver, Colorado as a case study. Twenty years ago, the city had two major papers: the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. At the time, their combined newsrooms had over six hundred employees, they had both won Pulitzer Prizes and had the capacity to adequately cover the metro area and much of Colorado.

The 20 years since have not been kind to local news. The Rocky Mountain News has since shuttered. Like many other outlets, it was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis and published its final edition in early 2009, right before the 150th anniversary of its founding. 

The Denver Post is now a husk of its former self, with a newsroom of only 70 journalists. It was also sold to Digital First Media, a publishing company owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

The Post has been subjected to a phenomenon Sullivan calls, “strip mining,” where a struggling local paper is bought by a hedge fund, gutted of its expensive or needless parts, and instructed to publish clickbait stories to maximize web hits. Alden Global Capital has been extremely successful with this technique raking in $160 million in profits in 2018 and having the highest margins in the newspaper business. 

That financial success hasn’t come without pushback. After being instructed to fire 30 employees that same profitable year, the Denver Post published a scathing op-ed against their hedge fund owners, whom they referred to as “vulture capitalists.”

Sullivan weaves these examples into a narrative with her own experience at The Buffalo News, where she served as the top editor for 13 years. 

The Buffalo News was bought by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in the 1970s and, in the past, would routinely send their owner a million dollars a week. That’s not so anymore. In 2018, the paper lost money for the first time in decades. Even before that, Sullivan had to make extensive staff cuts through voluntary buyouts of older employees. 

This led the paper to change its reporting strategies. They would no longer station reporters in populous suburbs or in Albany. And its Washington bureau was reduced from three employees with a large office in the National Press Building to just one journalist writing from home. 

Things only got worse after Sullivan left. The copy desk and the “Life & Arts” section were demolished and the paper stopped publishing in-house movie and book reviews. The paper’s sole function became to watch local officials for wrongdoing.

Last year, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, the once-bullish Buffett commented on the abysmal state of local journalism, saying, “It went from monopoly to franchise to competitive to … toast.” He later added, “they’re going to disappear.” 

Soon thereafter, Buffett said he would sell off his entire newspaper empire piece by piece. The Buffalo News was sold to Lee Enterprises, an Iowa-based newspaper chain, earlier this year.

Sullivan sees limited ways out of the local news conundrum. Citing Heidi Legg’s 2019 Harvard study, she says journalism has two viable revenue paths: digital subscriptions and donations. Large outlets, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, can draw on a national population for subscriptions, but smaller papers don’t have the luxury of relying on that stream of revenue.

There are different ways to execute the donation model. One method Sullivan is lukewarm on is the billionaire funding model where an extremely wealthy individual buys and funds a newspaper to give it “runway,” as Jeff Bezos said of his role as owner of the Washington Post. 

A similar phenomenon took place at the Los Angeles Times. The paper had been hemorrhaging staff and money since the 1990s, but after being acquired by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, the paper has started to grow again. 

However, this model “is certainly not something that can be counted on to save the day across the country,” Sullivan warns. She points to the Review-Journal in Las Vegas. Once known for in-depth reporting, the paper now runs fluff pieces on the business ventures of its new owner, casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson. 

Sullivan’s favored proposal is the non-profit model. She points to outlets like ProPublica and The Texas Tribune as successful examples that do hard-hitting investigative work. The downside to this model, Sullivan says, is that funders can be difficult to please. Some will want editorial control and most have no interest in funding things like arts coverage or cartoonsthings that make a community paper feel like it’s a part of the community.

One model that Sullivan gives short shrift to is public funding. This idea has gotten a lot of attention in recent months from the likes of Steve Waldman in the Columbia Journalism Review and Nicholas Lemann in The New York Review of Books — as the pandemic-spurred economic crisis wreaks havoc on the journalism industry.

[Read more: As Media Jobs Disappear During COVID-19, It’s Time for More Publicly Funded Journalism]

Briefly, the argument in favor of public funding is that there can be institutional protections that insulate editorial decisions from the demands of elected officials or bureaucrats, like a peer-review system that determines where funding goes. Supporters of the model point to public colleges and universities — institutions that no one would claim are mouths of state propaganda — as a place where this theory has been put into practice. Ultimately, proponents argue that local news is a public good and should be funded like one.

Sullivan is especially concerned about this model in the Trump-era, where journalistic truth is under constant attack from the highest office in government. But she’s interested in anything that can keep local news afloat, saying, “old ideas on this subject — however well-founded and well accepted in an earlier era — should be subject to reexamination.”

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