This week marks The Seattle Times’ 125th anniversary. We are the oldest continuous family metro newspaper stewardship in the United States.
In recent years, we have used this occasion to explain the national crisis of our failing local free press system – how this crisis has threatened our democracy, exacerbated societal fault lines and divisiveness, and enabled the spread of destructive false information. Today, for the first time in three decades, I can share that we are seeing hopeful signs of saving and rebuilding our platform of democracy – the local free press system!
To be sure, the crisis is not over.
The period from 2008 to 2021 has been the most destructive period in American history for our once-vaunted local free press. During this time, absentee financial mercenaries accelerated acquisition and disinvestment of local newspapers. Hedge funds now control the majority of our country’s newspapers. They are in the final stages of harvesting every dime they can by shrinking newsrooms and eliminating valuable local content. Since 2008, the United States has lost 57% of newspaper newsroom jobs – a reduction of 40,000 local journalists. Most local newspaper newsrooms are severely understaffed, leaving too few journalists to hold authorities accountable to the public. Between 2004 and 2020, we lost 71 daily and 2,196 weekly newspapers. Many of the remaining dailies are “ghost newspapers,” with almost no quality relevant content.
Still, Americans trust their local newspapers, even bad ghost newspapers with minimal local content. It is our tendency to value what is familiar and what is in our own communities, even when it no longer serves our civic needs.
The new hope is coming from Congress, which has awakened to the severity of the crisis. With congressional and presidential leadership, the next few months present the opportunity to lay the groundwork to restore local newspaper stewardship – and begin to rebuild the relevant local content that feeds vibrant, engaged communities.
We are very proud of our Washington state delegation’s bipartisan leadership in D.C. to stop the bleeding of local newspaper jobs, end the Google and Facebook advertising monopoly, end uncompensated use of newspaper content, and bring some sanity and common sense to social media. Most importantly, we value their understanding of the critical need to subsidize the ubiquitous availability of independent local news and content for all citizens, something our founders understood when they created the U.S. Postal Service for the express purpose of distribution and availability of news and information from a system of local independent publications.
During the past decade, our delegation has become the most knowledgeable and active delegation in the country on local free press system issues, and a model of bipartisanship.
In June, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) co-sponsored the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, H.R.3940, with Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.). In late July, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced its Senate companion, S.2434, with co-sponsors Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). In 2019, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) led the passage of The Save Community Newspapers Act, which saved more than 20 local newspapers across the country, including the Blethen family stewardships in Seattle, Yakima and Walla Walla. Sen. Cantwell, former Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have been instrumental.
This year, Sen. Cantwell and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) have been congressional leaders in advancing steps to rein in and reform big tech’s monopolization of advertising, spread of false information and uncompensated use of newspaper content.
Washington is more fortunate than most states to still have a core of local daily family stewardships in Seattle, Yakima, Walla Walla, Spokane, Vancouver and Centralia. However, more than half of our state’s dailies are now ghost newspapers, with newsrooms that have been cut to the bone by hedge funds. The only good news here is the opportunity for our local communities to acquire and rebuild local newspaper stewardship with congressional support.
Without viable local community newspapers to help center us and maintain hope, civility and a community connection, we will continue to spiral down the proverbial rabbit hole — and our democracy will follow.
What you can do:
Let our delegation know you appreciate their work to save the local free press and tell them how critical it is to pass the legislation introduced this year. Longer term, accelerate the reform of big tech’s advertising monopoly. The supportive legislation is only a five-year lifeline. It is critical that big tech reform is achieved during this period.
Let the White House know how you feel. What is missing and needed now is visible, vocal leadership by the president. President Biden’s recently assembled “A-Team” to take on the tech giants was an excellent move that will most likely help the free press, but it will take time. It will not solve the current crisis of local newsroom layoffs. Biden’s support of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is important, as it is the short-term lifeline needed to stop layoffs and work on other aspects of the evolving business model.
On a final note, thank you. While our family’s 125-year-old mission is to serve you with the best regional newspaper content in the country, this would not be possible without you. Your subscription support and your support of our nationally unique community funding of public-service journalism have been key to our survival. Moreover, your support has enabled us to be one of the few regional newspapers in the country to add news staff and to expand essential coverage at this time. We now have more than 20 additional newsroom positions, thanks to your investment.
With gratitude and appreciation,