The devastating business struggles of American journalism, especially local newspapers, strand much of the country without functional news coverage.
Large newspaper chains without the roots and sense of duty of local ownership ran wild, consolidating the news business over decades. Now the private equity firms that lent money to grow the chains are seizing control and often cutting staff even more.
In an earlier era, the Federal Communications Commission helped safeguard local journalism. An FCC rule created in 1975 blocked the same owner from running a daily newspaper and television station in the same city. This rule helped preserve what the FCC’s chair at the time called “viewpoint diversity.” Today’s FCC acts as an accomplice in perverting that rule to enable more finance-sector ownership of local media.
The Cox family company’s $3.1 billion sale of its media holdings to Apollo Global Management, a private equity business, included several Ohio newspapers and broadcasters that operated in the same cities. Cox had been grandfathered in as a cross-owner, but the sale triggered the prohibition. Rather than drop the deal, Apollo notified the FCC it would reduce the Dayton Daily News and two other newspapers to printing three days a week. The FCC should have blocked this deal. Instead, it signed off.
Local journalism needs and deserves better protection from finance-sector exploitation. Newspaper cutbacks and closures dot the landscape. News deserts have emerged in communities across America, where city and county governments’ actions go unreported.
In the past six months alone, five Washington daily newspapers — in Bellingham, Tacoma, Olympia, the Tri-Cities and Vancouver — announced plans to print only six days a week to cut costs. The first four are owned by the McClatchy Corporation, a newspaper chain near bankruptcy. Nationally, hundreds of Tribune Publishing journalists are petitioning for a new owner to rescue the company from a potential takeover by the newspaper-slashing Alden Global Capital. In July, Alden could expand its holdings to take control of Tribune’s landmark newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the New York Daily News.
Yet, against this bleak landscape, there is strong evidence that local journalism can survive and thrive.
Last week, the nonprofit Poynter Institute described several ways independent regional newspapers — including the one you’re reading — have evolved to meet the challenges of the online era.
Nonprofits operate daily newspapers in Philadelphia, Tampa and elsewhere. Report for America grants pay for reporters to cover neglected topics in diminished newsrooms nationwide. Much of the industry has adopted a business model that relies on subscription sales to replace advertising revenues. And the use of philanthropy to fund specific projects, such as the Times’ investigative, traffic, homelessness and education teams, is on the rise.
These successes show that America’s free press is sustainable — with robust, community-rooted support.
Citizens and governments at every level should make a mission of aiding this evolution, not abetting the takeover of journalism by venture capitalists. The nation’s free press stands as a core value enshrined in the Constitution. For the sake of communities and democracy, the independent news business must be embraced, preserved and encouraged to succeed.