Back in May, I read with great interest Matt DeRienzo’s article “Death by 1,000 Paper Cuts.” DeRienzo, who also writes our “Industry Insight” column, discussed how small-town journalism was getting hit the hardest with layoffs and other cuts. He told me he wrote the article because he didn’t think people realized how bad the situation was at many smaller, chain-owned local newspapers, and how much corporate strategies were accelerating their demise.
The fear of news deserts has been circulating for a couple years now as more community papers are being gobbled up by companies like Gannett, Digital First Media, GateHouse, and tronc. DeRienzo described it to me as an “ownership problem.”
“We’re in an unprecedented situation regarding the large number of U.S. daily newspapers now owned by hedge funds that have no history of running journalism businesses and no real long-term interest in or commitment to journalism or the communities served by local newspapers,” he said.
According to a report by the UNC School of Media and Journalism’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” (newspaperownership.com) the vitality of community journalism is at risk because “the primary mission of the new newspaper publishers is to make money for their investors and shareholders.” The report found that since 2004, more than a third of the country’s newspapers have changed ownership (some sold two or more times) and the largest investment groups tend to employ a standard formula in managing their newspapers: aggressive cost cutting paired with financial restructuring.
Washington Post reporter Michael Rosenwald recently wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that no one wants to admit that news organizations are helping kill local news. In his story, Rosenwald said newspapers typically competed for news by setting up a beat system and placing reporters in various places where news of interest took place, but “now, around the country, newspapers small and large are adjusting to the settled economics of the internet—web traffic drives ad revenue—to fundamentally alter how local news is covered.”
Rosenwald argued that there should be value to local news beyond clicks. “Becoming less essential to loyal customers seems like a bad business idea if the business depends, like most do, on customers coming back,” he wrote. “And if reporters no longer show up regularly to meetings, crime scenes, and other places where news is made, how can they build relationships with sources that inevitably lead not just to those broadly written enterprise stories that editors now covet, but to leaks and other paths to major accountability stories?”
The reality is that many communities are losing their local coverage and in some areas, their local newspaper all together. According to the UNC report, there are at least 600 fewer newspapers and almost 900 fewer owners than in 2004. In Chicago, two daily newspapers still exist, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, but when the Sun-Times announced it was for sale in May, Tribune’s parent company, tronc, expressed interest in purchasing the paper. Since the announcement, other bidders emerged, and as I write this editorial, a final decision hasn’t been made yet, but the idea of having two dailies operating in the same city under a single owner shows local independent journalism may be in trouble.
“Communities can and will restore the journalism that’s been cut by supporting grassroots, independent local news entrepreneurship,” DeRienzo told me. “If a chain of newspapers really wants to be in the business for the long-term, it will put decisions back in the hands of local publishers to figure out what works in their communities. But it will also have to treat the problem more as a startup situation—accepting smaller profits or no profit in order to build something for the future.”