If a typical saccharin summer beach book feels wrong during this year from hell, consider picking up Margaret Sullivan’s new book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” It’s a quick read about an important issue, which makes it ideal for social distancing on the hammock.
Sullivan’s book came out last week, and it’s an important chronicle for anyone with even a passing interest in the fates of the local free press and democracy. In “Ghosting,” Sullivan documents the decline of local newspapers across the country and what might be done to save them.
Many readers in Washington state might not realize just how bad things are out there for communities that, in recent decades, have lost their local weekly or daily newspapers or seen their newspapers reduced to what are being referred to as “ghost newspapers,” as Sullivan refers in her book title. Newspapers in Spokane, Vancouver, Seattle, Yakima and Walla Walla have in-state owners, though struggling with market changes, are faring better. Newspapers under out-of-state ownership have seen staffs and local content cut to the bone. Papers in Olympia, Longview and Skagit Valley are just three examples.
Local newspapers provide essential coverage of local government and other newsworthy evens. Local reporters are on the front lines of recent protests and pushing public health officials to release data about COVID-19.
Newspapers in Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham, Tri-Cities and Boise, Idaho, might soon scale back further, though. Their owner, McClatchy Company, which had consistently scaled back operations at its newspapers, went bankrupt this year, and a hedge fund is buying the company at auction. When hedge funds buy newspapers, it almost always means cuts.
“Ghosting” describes the decline of the Buffalo (New York) News and a half dozen other newspapers from Youngstown, Ohio, to East Palo Alto, California. Their stories and the stories of the people whose lives changed are cautionary tales that reflect a growing crisis for democracy.
Sullivan is the media columnist at The Washington Post. Her column sometimes appears in The Seattle Times. Before that, she was public editor of The New York Times. She’s studied the newspaper industry as a critic with tremendous inside access.
More important, she started her career at the Buffalo News, rising through the ranks to become editor. She knows firsthand the importance of a local newspaper to its community.
“Ghosting” is absorbing reading this summer because time is of the essence if the local free press is to survive. Congress is working on bipartisan help for newspapers, but it’s just a start.
At a breezy 100 pages — less if you skip the less-interesting chapter about local newspapers overseas — “Ghosting” is the sort of book readers can blast through in a handful of sittings. For those tired of hearing about the doom associated with the decline of local free press, she gives the topic efficient coverage and moves on.
The problem is apparent. The solutions are paramount.
If the entire industry goes under, except for a handful of major national publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, America’s information ecosystem would wither. Visionaries and apologists suggest that local online news sites, citizen journalism, television and radio can fill the gap that remains. The truth is that local newspapers, despite years of decline, still produce more local reporting of higher quality than any other media.
Sullivan concludes the book by considering several proposals for saving local newspapers, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Almost certainly it will require come combination of reinvention, education and luck. Viable paths forward exist, but time is running out.
Pay attention to congressional activity, where good bipartisan solutions are fast evolving to stabilize America’s local newspaper newsrooms and to energize reform that will rejuvenate local stewardship and enable monopolistic internet reform so newspapers can profit from their own content and fund the local journalism readers deserve.
A survey last year by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of U.S. adults believe their local news media is doing well financially. Then, at least 71% of U.S. adults ought to read “Ghosting the News.” It wouldn’t hurt the rest, either.
Don’t think of it as summer homework; think of it as a chance to understand a potentially cataclysmic change taking place in America while it’s underway and while there’s still time to do something.