With America’s democracy threatened by foreign disinformation campaigns, voter apathy and deepening political divides, the last thing it needs is further erosion of its free press.
Yet now the nation’s two largest newspaper chains, GateHouse Media and Gannett, are poised to merge.
Although little can be done to stop this deal, it’s time for a movement to protect the free press through policy reforms, public education and an emphasis on local stewardship.
GateHouse and Gannett financiers are making tens of millions. Investors are teased with the potential of higher dividends. Yet more than 250 communities across the nation will end up with newspapers even more focused on cutting costs and paying off debt. To make the deal pencil, the companies plan to reduce newspaper spending by $115 million a year, on top of cuts they’ve been making for years.
Local news coverage saw a devastating plunge over the last decade. Newsroom employment fell by nearly half, from 71,000 to 38,000 from 2008 to 2018. At least 1,800 newspapers closed altogether since 2004.
“I don’t see a bigger danger to the country than what’s happening to our news and information, our civic dialogue,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who now advocates for diversity in media ownership. “You reach a point, if you lack a real vigorous civic dialogue, where self-government cannot be successfully maintained. I think we’re skating perilously close to that.”
There are a few bright spots, with a handful of newspapers in larger cities succeeding and reinventing themselves for the future. But much of the country now has only husks of the newspaper industry, if that, to keep them informed and engaged with local government.
This isn’t just self-interest. Numerous studies have found that the loss of local newspapers leads to civic problems such as lower voter turnout, more government corruption and fewer options on the ballot. A recent study by Meghan Rubado and Jay Jennings, at Cleveland State and the University of Texas, found that fewer mayoral candidates were on the ballot — reducing voter choice, empowering incumbents and weakening accountability — in places where local news reporting was cut.
“Newspapers have long been thought of as essential to the delicate fabric of democracy,” they wrote. “In a well-functioning system, citizens need to be actively engaged in their government and aware of decisions made by their elected representatives.”
The decline of the free press should be an issue for presidential and congressional candidates. It should be a priority for lawmakers and antitrust regulators looking at the market power of Facebook and Google, both of which profited from newspaper content while siphoning off advertising revenue that used to sustain journalism. It should also be addressed through improved fair-use law.
Further media consolidation is tragic. Democracy suffers from the industry’s contraction and absentee newspaper owners more beholden to investors than the communities they serve. Let’s find ways to save the free press before it’s too late.