Newspapers and mayors aren’t always friendly. If journalists aren’t prying into the inner workings of City Hall, they aren’t doing their jobs. Tension needn’t breed animosity, though, and a couple of big-city mayors went to bat for their local newspapers last month.
The list is impressive. Mayors from Miami, Sacramento, Kansas City, Lexington, Kentucky, and Raleigh, North Carolina, all took a public stand in favor of local journalism after the McClatchy Company, which owns newspapers in each of those cities, declared bankruptcy in February. McClatchy is a storied, family-owned chain with newspapers in 30 markets around the country, including four in Washington — The Bellingham Herald, The Olympian, The (Tacoma) News Tribune and the Tri-City Herald.
Now, with McClatchy’s Sunday announcement it expects to be purchased by a hedge fund, it’s one more casualty of a changing media landscape.
The mayors had urged the bankruptcy court to pursue local ownership for their papers rather than hand them over to a hedge fund that doesn’t give a damn about their communities.
“Miami is a young, growing, and diverse city that needs a voice that can question, that can challenge, and that can explain the critical issues relevant to its continued progress and prosperity,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez wrote to the court.
A strong newspaper serves as a check on Suarez and other public officials.
“Because of Herald coverage and commentary, the governments of South Florida have been more responsive, more honest, of greater service,” he wrote.
The paper therefore needs new owners who are “locally rooted and locally invested in our community, motivated primarily by a desire to serve the broader public interest, not the narrow bottom line.”
That last bit is key. Large ownership groups and hedge funds that have bought up newspapers around the country during the past 30 years place balance sheets ahead of journalism. Shareholder profits matter, not the news.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg touched on similar themes in a court filing. He even went a step further, promising that if a responsible owner took over the Bee, he would work with his community to raise money for good journalism.
“Here in Sacramento, I’m confident that we as a community can raise significant funding to help underwrite local journalism, which can be combined with donations from large statewide and national philanthropies,” Steinberg wrote. “I will personally commit to helping rally community support by convening a (virtual) funders’ conference in the next month.”
For a time, it looked like the mayors might get their wish. The Knight Foundation was rumored to be interested in buying the McClatchy papers. Knight, which is based in Miami, is a national nonprofit that invests in journalism excellence and helps transform the industry for the digital age. It doesn’t own individual newspapers, though, and things didn’t pencil out.
The remaining serious bids to pick over the bones of McClatchy came from hedge funds. Chatham Asset Management won the auction last week over Alden Global Capital. The bankruptcy judge still must sign off on the purchase.
“Asset management” and “global capital” don’t exactly scream journalism. It didn’t matter which won the auction. Communities served by McClatchy papers should expect staff cuts and less local news.
Suarez and Steinberg might not have saved their hometown newspapers, but their support should serve as a model for cities that have not yet lost local ownership. Preserving a vibrant free press where it survives and restoring it where it has withered will require collegial collaboration from many stakeholders.
Elected officials have every reason to approach the free press with trepidation. After all, one misstep or misspoken idea can wind up splashed across the front page. Journalists are government watchdogs. The Seattle Times has sued the city for public records. It has led the fight for transparency in the Legislature. It cuts the other way, too. The Times is fighting a Seattle Police Department subpoena for raw photos and videos the newspaper shot during recent protests.
The fact that relations can at times be testy shouldn’t prevent government officials from putting aside those differences in support of local newspapers that make their community better informed and stronger.
The free press is a cornerstone of democracy. If communities across America are to save their newspapers, everyone with a stake in the future must rally before it’s too late.