July 9, 2020

Gannett’s vice president for local news, Amalie Nash, told me last month that what keeps her up at night is a Pew Research Center survey that found 70% of U.S. adults think local newspapers are doing fine as businesses.

Here is a timely antidote for those outside the industry looking in: Margaret Sullivan’s new book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.”

In 100 brisk pages (her publisher describes the book as “novella-length”), the Washington Post media critic and former New York Times public editor gets at the long downward slide that has left so many newsrooms crippled watchdogs for their communities.

Sullivan’s book is well-reported, well-written, and jargon averse — with enough telling statistics, but not the blizzard of survey data that often reminds me that I am being paid to read such stuff.

Part of what’s user-friendly is that Sullivan draws on her long career at The Buffalo News, including 13 years as top editor, for her lead example. The News went from cash cow (though relatively leanly staffed back then) to struggling in just 25 years.

It’s hard to imagine a more vivid marker of decline — Warren Buffett was the longtime owner, a much quoted admirer of the franchise quality of a local newspaper. Until he wasn’t — and sold The Buffalo News and his other papers early this year, saying the industry had become “toast.”

Sullivan is careful not to disparage her successors or the on-the-ground reporters and editors left. There are just many fewer of them — so many more public board meetings and satellite suburbs uncovered, bare-bones local arts content, a shell of a copy desk.

Her analysis corresponds with mine on the sequence of key events, beginning with the end of what she calls the “toll-bridge” gatekeeping of local news and a mass local audience that was so critical to advertisers that they were in no position to quibble with yearly rate increases.

Then came the industry’s stumbling attempts to master internet presentation. And, finally in the 2010s, the killer competition of platform giants Facebook and Google with their targeted, cheap and easy-to-use digital advertisements.

Sullivan also finds room (well, five pages) to sketch the often neglected global dimensions of the problem.

Many such books I’ve read falter when they get to the requisite so-what’s-the-solution. Sullivan stays strong down the stretch, noting the promise of digital startups and the welcome, growing interest from foundations and local community leaders in saving an essential democratic resource.

But (like me) she is skeptical whether that will be enough and joins a growing consensus concluding that direct government subsidies should no longer be unthinkable. Sullivan closes with extended comment from Columbia University’s Nicholas Lemann and Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman on precedents — ways that distributing federal money can effectively be buffered from the whims of Congressional politics.

In a similarly titled 2004 book (“The Vanishing Newspaper”), Philip Meyer proposed the aviation analogy of a “death-spin” — reduced revenue leads to news cuts, leads to loss of circulation and audience revenue, leads to reduced appeal to advertisers and loss of ad revenue. Repeat.

I don’t see Meyer’s diagnosis losing its punch 16 years later. Props to Sullivan for the forceful update and seeing that a radical intervention or interventions will be necessary to get local journalism headed back on a good flight path.

(Ghosting the News is officially published Tuesday. An excerpt appears Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine. Sullivan will be appearing in a webinar with Dan Rather Monday afternoon).

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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