Last month, The Baltimore Sun won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for uncovering a scheme in which the mayor of Baltimore sold thousands of copies (in some cases, nonexistent copies) of a children’s book she had self-published to the Maryland’s flagship hospital network, which she helped oversee. The mayor resigned.
The finalists in that category were The Boston Globe, for a series on how that city’s public schools failed to help even its best students succeed, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for an investigation into the covering up of child sexual abuse in insular Amish and Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania.
None of that work would have been possible without dogged shoe-leather reporting: tracking down sources, digging up public records, analyzing data, interviewing experts and telling all the sides of the story.
Despite being honored, all three newspapers have had to cut pay, or lay off or furlough workers, since the pandemic started. Unlike the case with many other businesses that are suffering now, however, COVID-19 isn’t the source of these papers’ problems; it has simply accelerated the great disruption in the news business that began at least two decades ago. (Many metropolitan newspapers saw circulation peak starting in the 1970s, but total ad revenue for the industry peaked in 2000.) The causes of the disruption are many: changing reader habits; the migration of classified advertising to Craigslist and other internet services; the dominance Google and Facebook built over online advertising; and, not least, the slowness of legacy media organizations in adapting to the digital transformation in the production, consumption and distribution of news.
The problems in the local news business are so widespread and severe, communities across America are in danger of losing their last surviving daily newspapers. And if that happens, they’ll lose not just a crucial source of the information needed to navigate the travails of daily life, but also in many cases the only local organization working to hold government, businesses and powerful individuals accountable. Federal and state governments need to step in with support that helps local news outlets sustain themselves without compromising their independence or the public’s confidence.
The die-off has already begun. The Great Recession of 2007-09 left many news outlets struggling and depleted; the current economic crisis now threatens to become a mass-extinction event. Nearly 1,800 newspapers — most of them small weekly publications — closed between 2004 and 2018, according to “The Expanding News Desert,” a landmark 2018 study by Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina.
Newsroom employment dropped 23% from 2008 to 2019 and has fallen precipitously since the pandemic started. That’s an incalculable number of injustices not exposed.
Two of California’s 58 counties — Sutter County, in the Sacramento Valley, and Alpine County, between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park — are without a local newspaper. In Plumas and Lassen counties, where several community papers recently closed, the residents tend to be older, poorer and more isolated, as in other “news deserts.” In California alone, since the start of the pandemic, newsrooms in Chico, Hermosa Beach, Marysville, Monterey, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Seaside have announced layoffs, furloughs or other reductions, according to the nonprofit Poynter Institute. Local news is struggling even in the East Bay and Silicon Valley, home to some of the most affluent and highly educated readers in America.
With fewer journalists, papers inevitably offer less of everything that readers care about, whether it be coverage of local budgets, high-school sports, arts and entertainment, or land-use decisions. And when there are no reporters watching, there may be no exposure of corrupt local officials, lax construction safety regulation or controversial developments that unexpectedly win approval.
The Los Angeles Times is fortunate, having been rescued by a new local owner in 2018, following a unionization drive by our journalists. But the Los Angeles Times is losing money and faces many of the same challenges as other newspapers; we recently implemented furloughs and pay cuts, among other cost-saving measures, as well as selling three community newspapers. To avoid more layoffs, we are taking part in a work-sharing program that allows eligible employees to reduce their hours and receive unemployment benefits.
As California’s largest news organization, serving America’s second-largest metropolitan region, The Times is better positioned to survive and prosper than its counterparts serving rural areas, small towns, suburbs and inner-city communities, where newspapers have either disappeared or turned into “ghost newspapers,” with little to no original reporting.
Some would argue that it is time to abandon traditional newspapers, and to throw support behind the burgeoning nonprofit-journalism movement. California’s nonprofit newsrooms — including Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting, CalMatters and Voice of San Diego, along with listener-supported radio stations such as KPCC and KCRW — do courageous accountability journalism and deserve philanthropic support. So do newspapers owned by nonprofits, notably The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times.
But the rise of nonprofit news, however laudable, is nowhere close to — and may never reach — the scale that would be needed to make up for the reduction in original reporting by newspapers. And that loss affects other local news sources as well. In 2011, a nonpartisan working group convened by the Federal Communications Commission found: “With larger staffs, newspapers carried the heavier burden of reporting — especially of investigative, enterprise, and beat reporting — while local TV and radio ‘cast’ the news to a ‘broad’ audience. Thus, changes in the health of one medium — newspapers — ripple through the entire local news economy, prompting recalibrations among all media.”
In 2009, during the last big wave of journalism cutbacks, another expert panel, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, concluded: “Newspapers may have their shortcomings, but in many communities, they have been for a century or longer the primary source of fair, accurate and independent news.”
Local news is so vital that, when a newspaper closes, merges or reduces publication, it raises the local government’s borrowing costs, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago, which were among the first to empirically document the relationship between watchdog journalism and improved governance.
Some help for newspapers is under discussion. The pandemic relief bill approved by the House on May 15 would expand local news companies’ eligibility for forgivable loans and cut some of their costs. But much more needs to be done to help local news organizations manage not just the pandemic, but also the transition to the internet era and the migration of advertisers to other platforms.
There are a number of other steps the federal government should consider that could make the local news business more sustainable without compromising its independence, including:
—Making it easier for commercial news organizations to convert into nonprofits, building on the example set by The Salt Lake Tribune last year. Such a shift could open the door to treating subscription fees as tax-deductible charitable contributions, which would be a boon to readers.
—Amending federal bankruptcy law to let courts give weight to community benefits, not just the interests of creditors, when overseeing the restructuring of insolvent newspapers.
—Providing no- or low-interest government loans for news startups and community publications.
—Recognizing that when newspaper mergers reduce investment in local reporting, consumers may be harmed to an extent that violates federal antitrust law.
—Expanding the Corp. for Public Broadcasting’s mandate to include local public-interest news media organizations, such as Berkeleyside and Voice of OC.
—Classifying local journalism as a public service profession and making journalists eligible for federal loan forgiveness, just like lawyers, nurses, teachers and veterinarians who work in underserved communities.
In the longer term, lawmakers and regulators are going to have to grapple with the damage Google and Facebook have inflicted on the publishers whose content they have leveraged to attract advertisers. And philanthropic foundations and private benefactors should consider the establishment of a “deconsolidation fund,” or community-based media fund, that could be used to help newspapers ease into nonprofit status, represent the public interest in bankruptcy proceedings or even buy local newspapers from chains. Courageous work is being done by journalists across America, but locally owned newspapers are ultimately more accountable to their communities than chains owned by hedge funds and private equity firms.
Finally, although outright government funding for the news sets off alarm bells, we are encouraged by state-level initiatives — the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, the Colorado Media Project and Your Voice Ohio — that treat accountability and watchdog journalism as a public good and provide financial and organizational support for independent, factual, nonpartisan, solutions-oriented reporting. At the same time, states should take care not to exacerbate the problems faced by the news business, as the California Legislature did last year by passing AB5. The law, which codifies a state Supreme Court ruling on employee classifications, requires newspaper carriers to be treated as employees rather than as contractors, imposing ruinous costs on already strapped publishers. So far the publishers have been given until 2021 to comply, but they should be exempt altogether from AB5 or given more time to transition away from print delivery.
According to the Pew Research Center, a solid majority of Americans say their local news outlets report the news accurately, hold political leaders accountable and deal fairly with all sides. Unfortunately, that support has not been enough to ensure the survival of the news ecosystem in an age of truth decay, hyperpolarization and misinformation.
If local news goes out of business, the damage to our democracy will be severe and irreversible.