Of all the beats covered by The Chicago Tribune, perhaps none has a higher profile than the Cook County courthouse, the scene of real-life dramas like the trial of mob boss Al Capone and TV shows like “The Good Wife” and “Hill Street Blues.”

With 36 felony courtrooms, it is “one of the nation’s busiest courthouses,” brags The Tribune in its web bio of criminal courts reporter Megan Crepeau. She cranks out a story every day during a big trial, sometimes three if there is breaking news on other cases.

“It’s an enormously busy beat, and I love it,” says Crepeau. “People from all over the county … all kinds of walks of life, experiencing the full range of emotions from despair to joy,” she enthuses. “The stakes are incredibly high.”

But this spring and summer, Tribune readers get no Crepeau for one week every month. She can’t cover trials, nor can she answer phone calls or email, even if that means news tips lie dormant in her inbox for days, an eternity in one of America’s few two-paper cities. She is one of dozens of Tribune employees intermittently idled to help the newspaper’s owners cut costs to stay solvent during the advertising drop-off caused by the pandemic. Colleagues fill in, but they have multiple responsibilities, which raises the question of who is keeping an eye on the judicial branch of government.

“It feels so strange,” she said on a recent Friday during her furlough. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been so disconnected from my job. Even if I’m on vacation, I’m at least trying to make sure my inbox doesn’t get full, or passing along tips.”

Scholars document journalism crisis

A shorter leash on watchdogs

Here are the studies free press advocates repeatedly cite to warn that disappearance of local news outlets is bad for local democracy:

• Through they are but one quarter of the news outlets feeding the information ecosystem, newspapers crank out 60% of the original local reporting, researchers at Duke University found.

• Following newspaper closures, municipal borrowing costs increase by 5-11 basis points, costing the municipality an additional $650,000 per issue, three researchers led by Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame found.

• Civic engagement — such as contacting public officials, participating in school or other neighborhood groups, voicing political opinions — dropped significantly in Denver and Seattle after those cities lost one of their two daily papers, a decline not found in other major American cities that did not lose a newspaper, according to a researcher from Portland State University.

• In cities that lose a newspaper, voting patterns are more clearly partisan, with fewer voters willing to split their ticket and vote for candidates of multiple parties, according to a study in The Journal of Communication.

Crepeau’s furlough gives Tribune readers a taste of what academicians have found in a series of studies: Bad things happen to local democracy when newspapers disappear. That’s the crux of nationwide efforts to save the free-press system: Local journalism is the oxygen of democratic self-rule.

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As head of her newsroom’s union, Crepeau argues the furloughs are just the latest example of Tribune Publishing prioritizing dividends above public service and bowing to cost-cutting habits of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that is exercising increased control over one of America’s biggest newspaper chains. Tribune Publishing owns dozens of newspapers in major U.S. Cities like Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Orlando.

Whether you favor the NewsGuild’s view or management’s, this is clearly a case where external factors — business stalled by the economic freeze — are keeping government watchdogs tied up.

But even before the pandemic — which The New York Times calculates has cost 38,000 media workers all or part of their jobs — journalism’s watchdogs were being pulled off their beats by an internal force: disinvestment.

As newspapers have become less profitable, investors who own newspapers make no apology for cutting pages, firing journalists and cutting coverage to boost their profits. That’s what protectors of the free-press system mean when they warn against disinvestment.

Jim Brady, a veteran newspaper journalist and serial launcher of online news products, calls this “The Age of the Journalism Combover, where the necessary resources no longer exist to cover the desired terrain.” In a recent column for journalism trade publications, Brady counseled editors they can no longer be the comprehensive watchdogs they once were and instead of spreading their remaining staff thinly should instead focus on covering a few beats deeply.

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You don’t have to travel to Chicago to see it.

Now retired, former Renton Mayor Denis Law (shown here at a 2016 City Hall meeting) says democracy is harmed by the disappearance of small daily papers like the Eastside Journal-American, whose reporter was a daily presence in city offices when Law first joined the City Council in 2000. Since then, the dailies disappeared and weekly papers serving the town cut staff. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times, file)
Now retired, former Renton Mayor Denis Law (shown here at a 2016 City Hall meeting) says democracy is harmed by the disappearance of small daily papers like the Eastside Journal-American, whose reporter was a daily presence in city offices when Law first joined the City Council in 2000. Since then, the dailies disappeared and weekly papers serving the town cut staff. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times, file)

When Denis Law first ran for the Renton City Council in 2000, The Eastside Journal-American was a daily paper with a full-time reporter covering City Hall. But in the roll-up of that daily by increasingly larger regional companies, it became the King County Journal and then was shut down and replaced with a weekly. Law says Renton City Hall lost a full-time reporter. In 2007, he was elected Mayor of Renton, a post he held until last year.

“There was just no investigative reporting going on to speak of, and I don’t think it serves the public well when that happens,” said Law, who was himself a newspaper publisher before running for office.

To fill the gap, the city became its own news provider, he said, publishing newsletters, social media and other materials aimed at keeping crank bloggers from setting the agenda of public discussion in Renton.

But Law said the temptation to produce propaganda troubled him. “All of a sudden every agency has dumped tons of money into its own publications,” he said, “and you can set the tone for how great you are.”

Law said he is worried by the shrinking of American newsrooms. “I honestly think it’s so important for our country to have a protected press that is unbiased and responsible and accurate, that there ought to be almost a public mandated funding source for that.”

That’s one of the solutions proposed by free-press advocates, although public funding raises independence questions of its own.

Editor’s note: This report has been updated to clean up a line of broken formatting code in the fact box about research.