The decline and fall of American journalism


Community newspapers across the U.S. are dying, slain by a combination of greed, changing public media habits, and indifference.

We begin with a story from Monday’s BBC News:

The New York Daily News, one of the city’s two tabloid papers, is halving its editorial staff, the latest sign of trouble in the local news business. The cuts will leave the newsroom with about 40 people, according to former employees.

They come less than a year after the paper was bought by Tronc, which has a reputation for low newsroom investment.

The New York Daily News started in 1919 and has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, one of them last year.

Tronc faced backlash from staff at the Los Angeles Times, who formed a union and cast a spotlight on the cuts at Tronc-owned publications, despite high compensation going to top executives and other insiders.

Tronc is paying Merrick Ventures, a private equity firm led by Tronc’s biggest shareholder, $5m (£3.8m) a year for “management expertise and technical services”. The newspaper company, which also owns the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, subsequently sold the Los Angeles Times.

And it’s not just the Big Apple tabloid’s newsroom on the chopping block. Heads are rolling  today at the chain’s other papers,across the country, as reported by CNNMoney:

The newspaper publisher is laying off staffers at some of its other papers “today and tomorrow,” according to a Monday afternoon memo from Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn.

The announcement immediately spooked staffers at papers like The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune.

Dearborn said the cuts will not be as severe as in New York.

“The Daily News is unique in that local leadership determined a complete redesign of its structure was needed post-acquisition,” he wrote. “We do not expect reductions of this scale in any of our other newsrooms.”

“With that said, several newsrooms and business units are implementing much smaller reductions today and tomorrow to reduce expenses and contain costs,” he wrote.

But it’s not the gutting of papers that should concern a citizen in a deomiocrayc; it’s also the closing of papers by the giant chains that now control most of the nation’s community journalism.

From PBS’s Independent Lens:

In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

There are also major news organizations not owned by the “big five.” The New York Times is owned by the publicly-held New York Times Corporation, The Washington Post is owned by the publicly-held Washington Post Company and The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times are both owned by the Tribune Company. Hearst Publications owns 12 newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as magazines, television stations and cable and interactive media.

But even those publications are subject to the conglomerate machine, and many see the “corporatizing” of media as an alarming trend. Ben Bagdikian, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of The New Media Monopoly, describes the five media giants as a “cartel” that wields enough influence to change U.S. politics and define social values.

Newspocalypse Now! in three easy graphics. . .

Three images capture the sad story of the decline and fall of community journalism.

First up is a graph by Clinton Mullins, a Twitter exec who formerly held a senior position at old school media legend Conde Nast, showing the steady decline in American newspapers:

Next, from a January Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the state of journalistic employment across all platforms:

And from the Pew Research Center, a global look at the percentages of folks who believe their media are doing very/somewhat well at reporting the news:

One could argue that new media journalists are filling some of the decline seen in print newsrooms, but we would argue that in one very critical respect they are not.

Once newspapers were mostly locally owned, and their journalists and their publishers live in the communities they served.

And most significantly , community newspapers served as platforms for democracy, since providing information for a broad range of the public reflecting wide diversity of activities and opinion and thus constituting m modern version of the ancient Greek agora, the marketplace where both business and democracy took place.

And that’s why the changing nature of media ownership is of such vital importance,

The worst of the  predators stake out their prey

There’s an increasing probability that if you’re reading a U.S. newspaper. It’s owned by that most rapacious of predators, an investment bank. One such outfit, New Media Investment Group, was created as a shell to control the assets of Gatehouse media, with 144 daily newspapers and 333 weekly newspapers in 27 states, with the New Media itself being, according to its website, “externally managed and advised by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm.” Fortress, in turn, owns everything from casinos and retirement homes to other investment firms, a mortgage company, and a railroad.

From The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts, a two-year study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media:

Much attention has been focused in recent years on the country’s largest and most revered national newspapers as they struggle to adapt to the digital age. This report focuses, instead, on the thousands of other papers in this country that cover the news of its small towns, city neighborhoods, booming suburbs and large metropolitan areas. The journalists on these papers often toil without recognition outside their own communities. But the stories their papers publish can have an outsized impact on the decisions made by residents in those communities, and, ultimately, on the quality of their lives. By some estimates, community newspapers provide as much as 85 percent of “the news that feeds democracy” at the state and local levels.

This means the fates of newspapers and communities are inherently linked. If one fails, the other suffers. Therefore, it matters who owns the local newspaper because the decisions owners make affect the health and vitality of the community

>snip<

Over the past decade, a new media baron has emerged in the United States. Private equity funds, hedge funds and other newly formed investment partnerships have swooped in to buy — and actively manage — newspapers all over the country. These new owners are very different from the newspaper publishers that preceded them. For the most part they lack journalism experience or the sense of civic mission traditionally embraced by publishers and editors. Newspapers represent only a fraction of their vast business portfolios — ranging from golf courses to subprime lenders — worth hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. Their mission is to make money for their investors, so they operate with a short-term, earnings-first focus and are prepared to get rid of any holdings — including newspapers — that fail to produce what they judge to be an adequate profit.

Here in California, Alden Global Capital — another vulture — owns the great majority of Golden State newspapers [38], accounting for an equally large majority of the readership.

Alden runs them through a shell, Digital First Media, which in turn has no less that three other shells to run their California papers. And Digital First President Joe Fuchs has his priorities, as he told a recent press conference: “Alden or any of their peers, doesn’t get involved in something to lose money.”

Alden’s capture of the California Fourth Estate and the ensuing ruthless and repeated downsizings play a leading role in the decline of California print employment reflected in this stunning graphic from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:

Alden and its principal are so vicious in their attacks on the newsrooms that a 26 March Bloomberg News report on the company carried this headline:

Imagine If Gordon Gekko Bought News Empires

The reality is even worse: This raider sinks decimated newsrooms’ revenue into bad investments.

In an 17 October 2016 report, the Poynter Foundation charted the ownership types of the top 25 newspaper companies. Those gray malignancies dramatically illustrate the metastatic grasp of investment banks in the dramatically downsized dead-tree trade where we spent the most fulfilling years of our life:

The accompanying text reveals one of many things that happens when the hedge-funders seize control:

Because they own so many newspapers, they can absorb the loss if an individual newspaper fails. If investment firms cannot sell an underperforming newspaper, they close it, leaving communities without a newspaper or any other reliable source of local news and information.

As newspapers die, large areas of the country are transformed into news deserts, counties with few or no paid reporters covering the local communities in black and white.

From Columbia Journalism Review, a look at the news deserts in the contiguous 48 states, with the palest areas representing counties with no remaining papers:

One map reminded us of another, this county-by-county reflection [Wikipedia] of the relative proportion of the winning votes for Hillary Clinton [blue] and Donald Trump [red]. The reason for the blue in the news deserts of Atizona and New Mexico is accounted for by the presence of tribal reservations:

More from an 8 April Politico report:

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn’t do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.

POLITICO’s findings — which put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context — were drawn from a comparison of election results and subscription information from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The findings cover more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level.

The results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012. Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.

That gives new force to the widely voiced concerns of news-industry professionals and academicians about Trump’s ability to make bold assertions about crime rates, unemployment and other verifiable facts without any independent checks. Those concerns, which initially were raised during the campaign, were largely based on anecdotes and observations. POLITICO’s analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims.

The White House declined to comment for this story, but Trump and his campaign officials have made no secret of their preference for partisan national outlets and social media to mainstream outlets of all types.

Newspaper closings lead to higher taxes

Close of local newspapers carries another cost for the impacted communities.

From “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” by three finance professors, Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame, and Chang Lee and Dermot Murphy of the University of Illinois at Chicago:

Newspapers play an important monitoring role for local governments. Other papers have shown that the loss of a local newspaper leads to worsened political outcomes in the region, and we illustrate that there are worsened financial outcomes as well. In particular, we show that long-run municipal borrowing costs increase by as much as 11 basis points following a newspaper closure, and we utilize several identification tests to show that these results are not being driven by underlying economic conditions in the region. We also show that government efficiency outcomes are substantially affected by newspaper closures. In particular, we find that government wage rates, government employees per capita, tax dollars per capita, and the likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated sales all increase following a newspaper closure. From a finance perspective, our results suggest that local newspapers are important for the health of local capital markets.

For counties that have experienced local newspaper closures, we do not expect these newspapers to return, nor do we think that they should, per se. Online news outlets are fundamentally changing the way that people consume news, and they are very likely to remain the dominant source for news consumption. However, these paradigm-shifting news outlets do not necessarily provide a good substitute for high-quality, locally-sourced, investigative journalism. In the long-run, perhaps an equilibrium will be reached in which these online-based organizations contract out work to local reporters and tailor their news to the local areas. In 2009, former Baltimore Sun reporter and famous television producer David Simon stated the following: “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore Zoning Board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium.” We concur, and our evidence suggests that economic growth at the county level will be better off in that equilibrium.

Just how much a paper’s closure costs local taxpayers whe n their government seeks bond funding is summed up in a graphic from co-author Murphy:

BLOG News bonds

The Trumpster delivers a coup de grâce

And now the biggest beneficiary of the decline of community journalism is dealing Ameirca’s newspapers another deadly blow, forcing papers to cut back even more, writes veteran press-watcher Ken Doctor noted in a March report for the Nieman Lab:

Now the battle is heating up on Capitol Hill over tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on Canadian groundwood paper earlier this year.

The tariffs increase the cost of newsprint by as much as 30 to 35 percent, though the impact on publishers is highly uneven, with some chains in better shape and the dwindling independents most at risk. The predictable impacts already in motion: more newsroom layoffs, thinner (and reshaped) print products, fewer Sunday preprints, and an overall further diminishing of the value proposition newspapers are offering their readers.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will reduce its printing days from seven to five next month. The Nevada Appeal in Carson City, Nevada, moves from seven to just two days, while its parent cuts frequency on three adjacent papers.

Within the industry, there’s talk of “dropping Mondays” and replacing print editions with e-editions on other days as well. It looks as if newsprint tariffs will force more publishers to take the path Advance Publications first took six years ago, swapping daily print for digital.

And so it goes. . .

We started in print journalism doing volunteer reporting for a Colorado mountain daily, beginning with a byline and photo on the front page banner story of the 9 November 1964 San Luis Valley Courier, heading next to Arizona for a $50-a-week gig in Arizona at the weekly Winslow Mail, moving next to Nevada and hitch as crime, civil rights, poverty, and radical politics reporter [the last three beats by our own devising and the first such beat assignments in the history of Silver State journalism] on the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal — then as now the state’s dominant newspaper.

Our next job was back in Arizona, where we’d spent 30 days covering schools and general for the Tucson Daily American, a newspaper with the temerity to close before we got our second paycheck.

After starting our journalism addiction at 7600 feet above sea level, our first California gig put us om the Pacific Coast, two blocks from the beach at the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. The town’s main industry was the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, where Vietnam War-bound jarheads got their field training before they headed out to combat.

The next newspaper gig was in another coastal town at the superb family owned Santa Monica Evening Outlook, the finest job we ever held. Then it was on to the Sacramento Bee, the dominant and then only newspaper covering the capital city of the nation’s most populous state.

Our final newspaper job was at the Berkeley Daily Planet, the California city that gave rise to the legendary Free Speech Movement.

Of those newspapers, the Winslow Mail, Tucson Daily American, Oceanside Blade-Tribune, Santa Monica Evening Outlook, and the Berkeley Daily Planet were owned by families or individuals and have folded, vanishing from front porches and newsstands, their communities left without local news produced by committed journalists who, despite by their own inevitable personal biases, work hard to fairly and accurately report differing views.

Each of the communities they once served has become a news desert.

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6 responses to “The decline and fall of American journalism

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