Scary headlines

Newspapers are disappearing -- and taking our democratic vigor with them

GHOSTING THE NEWS
Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy
By Margaret Sullivan
105 pages, Columbia Global Reports

WHEN THE OWNERS of the Middlesex News acquired the Waltham News-Tribune, the first thing they did was put new locks on the doors of our headquarters in Framingham. A daily newspaper is a 24-hour operation; I’d never seen the doors locked. But there were rumors that union pressmen who’d lost their jobs in Waltham might try to vandalize our presses. We hunkered down and waited for blowback that never arrived.

That was in the late 1980s, and the newspaper business was booming. Sunday papers were thick with inserts; page after page of classified ads peddled cars, real estate, and jobs. Those ads paid for a wide range of features – comics, recipes, movie reviews, astrology forecasts – things that gave readers reason to turn the pages. Most important, they paid for local news.

Just about every one of Massachusetts’s 350-odd cities and towns had at least one reporter showing up for selectmen’s meetings, collecting police reports, writing features on new school programs and 100th birthday celebrations.

It was a more innocent age, especially compared to today, as vulture capitalists pick over what’s left of formerly proud newspapers. But the business was changing, even before the internet smashed newspapers’ business model. A generation of local newspaper owners was cashing out; new investors were coming in.

They gobbled up weeklies and small dailies, mostly with borrowed money, building suburban rings to compete against the mighty Boston Globe, looking for economies of scale to fatten their profits. The new players swore they believed in democracy and journalism, but the game they played went by the rules of modern capitalism: borrow heavily, flip troubled assets, cut expenses ruthlessly, make your quarterly numbers, and pump up the stock price.

In Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, her smart, tight, and necessary new book on the sad state of local journalism, Margaret Sullivan tells a national story. Sullivan, a Washington Post media columnist, revisits the newsroom of the Buffalo News, where she spent the first part of her career. Rescued, then abandoned, by Warren Buffett, the News is a thin shadow of the thriving journalistic enterprise it once was.

She chronicles the last days of The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, one of more than 2,100 newspapers that have bit the dust in the last 15 years. For every paper officially dead, there are hundreds of “ghost papers,” she writes, living on as free-distribution shoppers with little local content or as websites stuffed with syndicated copy and click-bait ads. Sullivan cites the growth of “news deserts” ­– vast swaths of America where people have no source of local news.

The cancer eating newspapers is a local story, one I watched over 30 years from my perch at one Massachusetts newspaper buffeted by a succession of owners: Harte-Hanks, a Texas-based chain that left newspaper publishing to concentrate on direct mail; Community Newspaper Co., a surround-the-Globe chain of small dailies and weeklies backed by Fidelity Investments; the Boston Herald, which wound up in bankruptcy after its purchase of CNC proved unsustainable; and GateHouse Media, which, having merged with Gannett earlier this year, now controls one out of every six US newspapers.

The withering of Massachusetts newspapers happened slowly at first, then all at once. The pressmen in places like Waltham were the first to go, as management looked to bust unions and centralize production. Other jobs were eliminated as business offices and ad sales departments were merged.

Then they came for the newsrooms, first making the easy calls. If Waltham was playing Framingham, why send two reporters from formerly competing newspapers to cover the high school game? Why pay a State House reporter when the Associated Press had someone there? Why not borrow reporters from the weeklies to fill shifts on the daily? Why not do regional stories and run them in a bunch of papers, instead of the harder work of covering the news of a single city or town? Why pay a staffer to write about the arts when you can get freelancers to do it on the cheap? With each cut, the papers became less local, less responsive, less professional, and less essential.

Then the internet took away the ad revenue that kept papers afloat. Craigslist and similar sites took the classified ads, Amazon the retail display ads. Google and Facebook took the stories newspaper reporters had produced and distributed it for free.

It’s not that publishers didn’t see new technology coming; they just couldn’t figure out how to respond. They couldn’t throw everything into digital because they still had print products they had to deliver to paying customers. Their debt loads forced them to cut costs and raise prices, charging more for thinner papers that no longer had much local news in them. Readers noticed, and paid circulation plummeted.

With each recession, newsroom headcounts took a hit, and they never recovered when the economy bounced back. Reporters and editors were told to do more with less, and to pursue young readers they were never going to win over.

Government meetings were deemed too boring, so in most towns reporters stopped attending. YouTube got big, so reporters were told to shoot video. Social media stole their readers, so newspapers took to tweeting, with monitors in the newsroom tracking which stories were trending minute to minute. Meanwhile, Gatehouse moved production of Massachusetts papers to Texas and is now eliminating editorial page editors, once a key link to the community, from mastheads across the country.

Along the way, distinctive weeklies at the heart of distinct communities – the Wellesley Townsman, the Provincetown Banner, the Lexington Minuteman, and a hundred more – have become indistinguishable from each other. Small cities with big challenges and rich cultures – Worcester, Lowell, Quincy, New Bedford, Fitchburg – have seen newspapers that had provided leadership and community for a century turning into ghost papers.

With each debt-fueled acquisition, the new owners typically obtained valuable downtown real estate, expensive printing presses, local credibility built up over long years of service and, often, a pair of Fenway season tickets. First the new owners sold off the baseball tickets, then the real estate, eventually the presses. As waves of layoffs and buyouts decimated newsrooms, their credibility faded.

We’re now in the late stages of newspaper devolution, as Wall Street giants pick over the remains of distressed properties. Fortress Investment Group, the money behind Gannett/Gatehouse, owns 10 Massachusetts dailies, including the Patriot Ledger, Worcester Telegram, and the MetroWest Daily News, and more than 100 weeklies. Alden Global Capital, operating as Digital First Media, owns the Boston Herald, Lowell Sun and Fitchburg Enterprise, and is considered even more rapacious.

Sullivan looks for signs of hope in this dismal landscape, and finds a few. Billionaires with altruistic intentions have rescued major metros like the Globe and the Washington Post. In Pittsfield and a few other cities, local owners have bought papers out of hedge fund ownership with promises to reinvest in journalism.

Locally-focused websites, some started by laid-off newspaper reporters, have filled the void in some communities. Nonprofits are trying to create new models for sustainable local journalism. There’s now talk of direct government subsidies to keep newspapers alive, a sign of the industry’s desperation. But there’s no one model that promises to bring back all the local news that’s been lost.

It’s not just newspaper readers that feel that loss. Researchers have found that when a newspaper closes, civic engagement declines, fewer candidates run for office and fewer people vote. Studies have found that communities that don’t have reporters looking over the shoulders of public officials experience more political corruption and more wasteful public spending. Epidemiologists are finding it’s harder to track the spread of disease in places without local newspapers.

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest blow to what Sullivan calls “the drain-circling news business.” Event advertising disappeared when the economy shut down. Reporters are being laid off and furloughed, and it’s a safe bet more papers will die before there’s a vaccine. But the most distressing note in Sullivan’s alarm may be a 2019 Pew poll that found nearly three-quarters of respondents believe local news outlets are in good financial shape, even though just one in six actually pays for local news. Media dinosaurs are leaving the scene, leaving communities and democracy itself diminished, and those who long ago stopped reading don’t even see it happening.

Sullivan’s novella-length book, part of the Columbia Global Reports series, is a siren in the night. As with larger catastrophes looming on the horizon, the questions are whether it’s too late – and whether anyone is listening.

Rick Holmes is the former editorial page editor for the MetroWest Daily News.