The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has a grim warning about ‘Ghosting the News’

'We have to save journalism in whatever form that is, which may have nothing to do with the printed page or the way we did it in the 1990s.'

July 14, 2020
Category: Business & Work

The article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, is out with a new book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” published by Columbia Global Reports at Columbia University.

Sullivan, a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, talked with the Medill Local News Initiative about the crisis in local journalism and how it affects citizens’ sense of community. This is an edited transcript.

Mark Jacob: In your book, you write that the alarming decline in local newspaper coverage may allow government corruption to flourish. Can you talk about that?

Margaret Sullivan: One of the things that local newspapers have done well, generally, over many decades is to do a kind of granular government coverage that we don’t see in other kinds of news media.

That’s not to say that a local radio reporter doesn’t do a great job or that local TV can’t do very good investigative work. But local newspapers particularly have a history of showing up at every board meeting, maybe even the committee meetings, working these sources over time, and being able to get at, through this detailed beat and local coverage, how people’s tax dollars are being spent.

That’s why I start off with this sort of small story in the book about a reporter at The Buffalo News, Barbara O’Brien, and this nitty-gritty work she did, noticing something in a budget and thinking, hah, that’s funny, what is that? And it turns out to be a $100,000 unexplained payout to a retiring sheriff.

Now, that’s not going to win a Pulitzer and it might not be the worst corruption in the world. But she dug into it, got the Freedom of Information Act going so that she could get at what happened, and asked the question. I don’t know if I want to call it corruption, but it’s government doing its thing in a way that newspapers can get in the way of. And so, I was interested to see that the Orchard Park town council, by the end of this little teeny news cycle, they were sort of ‘fessing up and saying we messed up and we appreciate the news media — and I think meaning The Buffalo News largely — for pointing this out to us. To me, that’s sort of the nub of a lot of this.

Now, there also can be huge, important investigations — the work that Julie Brown did at the Miami Herald on Jeffrey Epstein. There are ones that we know about because they have really risen to a level that is national and get a lot of attention. But there also are a lot of small things that happen that we need to keep an eye on.

Jacob: You make a point in the book that while watchdog journalism is extremely important, there are lots of other kinds of journalism that may be going away that also are important because they create a sense of community.

Sullivan: I think the reason that I feel so strongly about that is that I was the features editor of The Buffalo News for eight years, a long time. And I helped to establish a new section in the paper called Life & Arts. So I supervised the art critics and the feature writers. And this was the work we did day in and day out, was to write about the fabric of the community, particularly the arts.

It frustrates me that the last thing to go with these news organizations is sports coverage. And often one of the first things to go is, for example, book coverage, arts coverage. If there’s no news organization to do that, the community is missing this core around which it functions.

Jacob: Another point you make is that because of the crisis in local news, there are fewer entry spots for budding journalists.

Sullivan: I just heard yesterday from my friend David Shribman. David and I did not intersect at The Buffalo News, but he started off there. And then, over a long and impressive career, became the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and drove the coverage that won a Pulitzer Prize after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. Extremely important journalism. And David came up through that system that in many ways doesn’t exist anymore or is disappearing.

And I give the example of Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, who started off in the Stuart bureau of the Miami Herald. And he’s one of the great editors of our time, if not the great editor of our time.

And I give the example of David Halberstam, starting off at these tiny places. It worries me that as this whole system seems to be going away, that training ground is lost.

Jacob: I was fascinated by the part of the book where you talk about the East Lansing, Michigan, citizen journalist. To what extent is that even a partial solution to the problem?

Sullivan: I asked (citizen journalist) Alice Dreger about this, and I said there’s not one of you in every community that can do this thing. And she said that’s probably true, but there are people who have different strengths. And they may be able to come up with their own unique solutions.

It’s not a system that will fix things. But I’m hopeful that when a vacuum, a news desert, exists, something of value may come in to fill it. And it may be in some way that we’ve never considered before.

Jacob: You talk about the rise of nonprofit news organizations, but you quote someone as saying that “nothing scales like capitalism,” suggesting that the best way to drive mass media is the profit motive.

Sullivan: Well, that has been true so far, at any rate. I never want to underplay this: There are many important, valuable and admirable all-digital sites out there, many of which are nonprofits, and they are the best hope for the future. But having said that, I don’t think every small community that has lost a valued weekly is going to be able to support an organization like that, and there is a real problem of scale. I don’t know how to overcome that.

Jacob: What about these hedge funds in journalism? Is there any prospect for a move back toward a more family-ownership kind of journalism or even chains that actually believe in journalism as opposed to just believing in profits?

Sullivan: Well, there’s not much hope of that because the economics have changed so much, and even where there has been family ownership, that’s not necessarily a panacea.

The Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator was owned by the Brown family for something like 130 years or more, almost its entire history, and they shut down altogether last year. They just basically ran out of money and ran out of the ability to support a non-profitable organization.

While I hate to see hedge funds run newspapers — that’s absolutely appalling to me — I understand what happened here. I wish that they had more of a sense of the value of the organizations they’re running and perhaps could limit the expected amount of profit that they’re looking for.

Jacob: In the book, you talk about how Facebook and Google have sucked away so many of the ad dollars and now they’re doing some charity funding for journalism. You call that throwing “sofa change” at the problem. Do you think that there’s any way to get those big tech companies to do more to help financially sustain journalism?

Sullivan: If that happens, they’ll have to be forced to do it. I do want to say that the Google News initiative has actually been quite helpful, including in Buffalo, in helping the company figure out how to get more digital subscriptions. The help is not nothing.

But you can’t get away from the fact that Google and Facebook have dominated the digital ad market in a way that makes it almost impossible for news organizations like newspapers to really do well with digital advertising. And that was one of the great misunderstandings of the past 20 years — somehow digital advertising was going to save the day. It never did.

Jacob: The Medill Local News Initiative has been doing a lot of work on subscriber retention and understanding what keeps people paying for news, as well as how news outlets are pivoting from an ad-dependent model to a reader-revenue model. Do you think there’s a growing public awareness of the need to pay for reliable news, and will that help the industry in the future?

Sullivan: Well, it’s helping certain elements of the industry right now. It’s helping The Washington Post and The New York Times a lot. The difference there is that they’re able to draw from a national and even global audience. When you are in a smaller community, it becomes more challenging. The potential subscribers are that much fewer. But we do need to do a better job of telling our story and creating a demand for quality journalism.

I just read a piece by Alan Miller, who’s the head of the News Literacy Project based in Bethesda (Maryland), and his point is that we have to help create that demand through news literacy efforts to let people know that, yeah, it’s costly to put trained reporters in meetings. There’s a difference between your neighbors’ rumors and an actual reported piece that is subject to verification and to correction if it’s wrong.

Jacob: That’s the thing about citizen journalism. Obviously, it’s well-intentioned. But do they know how to create a gigantic spreadsheet using information that they got from public records after their lawyers fought for months to get it?

Sullivan: I agree, I think that’s one of the big differences, and yes, the legal part of it is tricky too. But again, I do see hopeful things. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press now has a program for news organizations that don’t have their own legal resources. Maybe they once had a lawyer in house. Now they don’t. They’re providing help with that.

Jacob: Recent research suggests that new local digital startups aren’t making up for the coverage lost from closings and cutbacks by legacy news outlets. Can digital startups help rescue communities from becoming “news deserts?”

Sullivan: Anytime you can get real reporting done, it’s a positive. Maybe it doesn’t completely fill the gap, but it makes a difference.

I want to be clear that my message isn’t just: We have to save newspapers. It’s really: We have to save journalism in whatever form that is, which may have nothing to do with the printed page or the way we did it in the 1990s.

Mark Jacob is editor of the Medill Local News Initiative website at Northwestern University.