Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan’s book about what happens to local democracy when local newsrooms shrivel couldn’t be publishing at a better time.

“Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy” is slated for release July 28 by Columbia Global Reports, an imprint of Columbia University Press. That’s just about the time analysts expect local news outlets to be staggering under the economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Galleys aren’t available yet, but Sullivan squeezed an email interview in between writing her column and revising the manuscript.

The book draws on her deep experience in local news, she says, and what I’ll call a unique vantage point from the two top media reporting jobs in America.

The case studies that underpin her conclusions — a decade of scholarship about mergers, bankruptcies and the effect of those losses — are shoptalk among journalists and are what stimulated The Seattle Times’ launch of the “Save the Free Press” initiative.

Scheduled for summer release, “Ghosting the News” by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan aims to sound the alarm about what happens to local democracy when local newspapers and news outlets dry up and to acquaint readers with experiments in recreating the local news ecosystem.  (Courtesy of Columbia Global Reports)
Scheduled for summer release, “Ghosting the News” by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan aims to sound the alarm about what happens to local democracy when local newspapers and news outlets dry up and to acquaint readers with experiments in recreating the local news ecosystem. (Courtesy of Columbia Global Reports)

But journalism’s insiders aren’t her target audience. What she hopes to contribute is a turnaround in the general public’s understanding of the severity of the problem.

A strong majority of Americans believe their local news providers are financially healthy and an important part of American democracy, a July 2019 Gallup Poll suggests. These folks could not be more wrong: Local news has long been under siege by social media and in financial trouble, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2019, thousands of communities were served by no newspaper or a shrunken news staff, according to University of North Carolina research on news deserts.

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Those long-gone reporters did what their fellow citizens rarely have time to do: scrutinize budgets, salaries and spending, all while covering the day-to-day work of government. Social scientists and economist have documented negative impacts on citizen engagement and municipal spending.

Concern about the rapid shrinkage has resulted in local journalism having a rare moment: major foundations like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation have recognized the threat to democracies large and small and have pledged hundreds of millions to a wide range of efforts to bolster local news staffs. Even Google and Facebook, the disrupters of the news business, have pledged their own hundreds of millions to repair the damage.

Here are the bona fides Sullivan brings to her sounding of the alarm:

Starting as an intern at the Buffalo (New York) News in 1980, she rose through the reporting staff to become the News’ first woman editor, for the last 12 years of her three decades there. In 2012, The New York Times hired her as its Public Editor, the full-time watchdog on the newsroom, responding to reader critiques and complaints. In 2016, The Washington Post hired her to write a media column.

Now she has seen up close the way economies of scale favor the two leading national publications, which charge slim fees to millions of digital subscribers, something local media can’t replicate.

Growing up in Buffalo and then serving her hometown as a watchdog journalist, she has used her column — and now intends to use her book — to argue for the necessity of the local press in a healthy democracy.

‘ … the whole news ecosystem is under extreme stress. And there’s a very high cost to democracy when citizens don’t have the information.”

Q. What do you mean by “ghosting” and what will readers learn from your book?

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In the dating world, of course, “ghosting” means disappearing without explanation. So my title is — partly — a shameless attempt to draw in millennial and Gen Z readers. The word has a sense of abandonment, which makes sense with the book’s overarching story: the disappearance (or fading) of local news across the country, as thousands of newspapers close their doors or become hollowed out due to severe staff cuts. But it’s not just about newspapers; the whole news ecosystem is under extreme stress. And there’s a very high cost to democracy when citizens don’t have the information.

Q. Why this book this year?

The crisis is building by the week. Gannett and Gatehouse merge; Warren Buffett sells his papers; the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator goes out of business. It goes on and on. Yet, local news is relatively well trusted in an era in which many people mistrust the news media generally. We need local news and we’re losing it, fast. So, the timing feels urgent to me.

Q. What most concerns you?

To put it very simply: When local news fades, bad things happen. Citizens become less politically engaged. Municipal costs rise. Voting becomes more polarized. So there is a real cost to our democracy. And there’s something harder to pin down. Local news helps us feel connected within our communities; it knits us together. So, when more than 2,000 local papers (many of them weeklies) go out of business in the past 15 years, as they have, we suffer a lot of loss.

Q. What lessons about the importance of local newsrooms are you seeing in the coronavirus contagion?

Although the pandemic is, by definition, a global and national story, it is also very much a local one. People living in small towns and good-sized cities alike need the kind of solid, verified information that they’ve received for a long time from local news outlets — mostly, but not exclusively, from local and regional newspapers. Questions like: Where can I get tested? How well are local hospitals’ emergency rooms prepared? What’s been canceled and what measures are being taken to (for example) provide refunds, or do remote learning, or get people help? What’s going on inside local nursing homes? How are local government officials responding? Some of this is available on your Facebook feed, but it may amount to rumor. It may be rife with disinformation — intentional or unintentional. Some answers will come directly from vendors or school systems, for example, but who is there to hold them accountable or to push — with a unified, powerful voice — for improvement? And what about the human stories — the local people who are sick or dying, or detained or delayed? All of this coverage is indispensable. But with newsrooms hollowed out, there are fewer people to do it. Or even, in places that have lost their one newspaper, perhaps no one to do it. This is also a time when people in communities need to support and help each other. Newsrooms help knit communities together. We need that more than ever right now.

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Q. Journalists often complain Craigslist, Facebook and Google knocked the legs out from under the free press system set up by the Founders and ought to pay to rebuild it. What have you concluded?

Technological change is at the heart of the problem because it destroyed the business model that supported newspapers for so long.

You can’t fight that, of course, and I wouldn’t want to go back to a pre-internet era. But yes, I do feel that these organizations have some responsibility. I’ve been impressed by the personal philanthropy of Craig Newmark, who founded Craigslist Inc. He’s deeply engaged in efforts to shore up journalism and is putting many millions in personal funds behind it. Separately, Google and Facebook each have initiatives to help local news recover. But considering the ways in which they’ve profited, they could and should do much more.

Q. Do you think Knight’s new “Techlash” report (about falling public approval of the biggest social-media and tech firms) will help local news outlets push for reforms that will put a better financial foundation under publishers?

The Knight report is important and could be the basis for effective action if there is good leadership to do so. Having the facts at hand is a good foundation for that, and Knight deserves a lot of credit for focusing on important issues. That the popular backlash against tech companies is bipartisan, according to the study, should be helpful in getting support from political figures and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. I’d be inclined to think of it as necessary but not nearly sufficient in terms of a tool for reform. And because this is a very fast-moving crisis, there’s no time to waste in moving from important information to change-producing action.

Q. Pollsters have repeatedly found the majority of Americans think their local news outlets are financially healthy. Is that a problem?

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It’s a huge problem. Many newspaper readers, for example, blame the journalists at local newspapers for the diminished coverage they see. When, in fact, these reporters and editors are working very hard to do what we know isn’t possible: To do more with less. So, part of the reason for the book is to help sound the alarm, so people understand the underlying causes and consider what might be done before it’s too late.

Q. How did those four years as ombud at The New York Times change your understanding of the public’s view of journalism?

My experience at The New York Times built on my years in Buffalo by reinforcing how much readers care about their news source. In both places, they wanted the institution to cover news fairly and energetically — and when they believe there’s bias or misjudgment or poor practices, they aren’t afraid to call out the journalists. The readers of The Times, in particular, were quite interested in how news judgments are made. They appreciated it when I was able to pull back the curtain and show them the decision-making and the factors that went into it.

Q. Of all the efforts to keep local news alive, which seems most promising to you?

The rise of nonprofit, digital-first newsrooms like The Texas Tribune or VTDigger or MinnPost is encouraging. These are not the total answer to the decline of newspapers, of course, because of the problem of scale (there aren’t enough of them with broad-enough reach or sufficient resources), but they certainly help. Public radio’s efforts in local markets helps. Increasing efforts by local TV stations to do investigative work helps.

Q. Anything you’d like to add?

I’ll just note that there’s a huge emotional factor for me here. I became a journalist in high school, and was the editor of my high school paper in Buffalo, and, as you know, became the editor of my hometown paper. Watching local news fade — and seeing the cost to people and communities — is wrenching. That’s why I want to help, if only in a small way.