As America slumps into 2021, we can all take cheer that Baby New Year holds a vaccine syringe instead of the traditional hourglass. Let’s hope he also holds a pen in the other hand. The fate of the local free press hangs in the balance in 2021, and it needs all the metaphorical and real support it can get.
Ravenous hedge funds, predatory tech barons, pugnacious partisan pols and, yes, bad decisions by newspapers have the vibrant local free press on the verge of extinction.
The Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen put the threats succinctly in his year-end message to readers. “The United States would still have a vibrant local free press system if not for the combination of lost local stewardship, massive disinvestment for short-term profit, monopolization of the digital advertising marketplace, and the misinformation, lies and lack of civility enabled by social media and big tech platforms,” he wrote.
Then came the pandemic. Economic disruption hit newspapers and other publishers of local news especially hard because when money is short, businesses cut advertising budgets.
Some newsrooms limped along on the crutches of Paycheck Protection Program loans. Too many others furloughed, bought out or laid off reporters, thousands nationwide. And dozens of newspapers closed their newsrooms entirely.
Smaller communities feel the pain most acutely. Their newspapers had fewer reporters to start and therefore less cushion when things went south. News deserts, where no local news publisher exists any longer, and ghost newspapers, which no longer have the staff to cover local news, are on the rise.
Mark Baumgarten, managing editor at the Seattle digital news site Crosscut, warned at the recent Re-Wire Virtual Policy Conference about the danger if nothing is done. “Where we’re really seeing things fall off a cliff are with our smaller communities, more rural communities,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have a pretty large percentage of the population that is not connected to its local civic conversation.”
And even if the new year brings an end to the pandemic, there’s no guarantee that the local free press would rebound with everything else. Some things will change permanently in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Let us not despair just yet. Despite the bleak year behind us, there are signs of hope for the free press in 2021.
A few newspapers this year saw success experimenting with new models such as forming nonprofits. Innovation and transformation will take many forms. I hope more publishers this year push boundaries beyond what’s worked in the past.
Digital subscriptions to local news sources increased last year thanks to keen interest in local pandemic coverage. But as any subscription manager will tell you, the trick is getting those subscribers to renew the first couple of times. If you subscribed to your local newspaper this year, I hope you found more than just coronavirus coverage to read. Stick around.
Digital readers aren’t enough, though. The news industry also needs government assistance to survive. America’s Founders knew that maintaining an independent local free press that served as government watchdog was essential to the health of their fledgling democracy. They created a federal postal subsidy to help cover the costs of distribution, but it has faded. Newspapers once were a common good worthy of investment. They should be again.
Some elected officials demonstrated last year that they are beginning to understand that. Members of Washington’s congressional delegation have taken a bipartisan lead on fighting for the press. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse are pushing their respective chambers in the right direction.
The Department of Homeland Security even declared reporters to be essential workers during the pandemic. Many governors are prioritizing news workers for vaccination so that they can safely cover events that are reshaping the nation.
These are promising signs, but none alone will save newspapers. Maybe nothing will, but that sort of pessimism has no place during the first days of a new year. Look forward with optimism. Subscribe to a newspaper. Tell your elected officials that the local free press matters. Most important of all, read the news and become an informed participant in the civic conversation. If the local free press dies in 2021, this could be your last chance.