No, Jill Abramson, local newspapers have not disappeared

February 7, 2019

You may have been surprised to learn, reading a Jill Abramson op-ed in The Washington Post earlier this week, that the respected former executive editor of The New York Times has discovered “the virtual disappearance of local newspapers.” Really?

In a bit of paradox, irony or whatever, this comes in a piece deploring that the liberal coastal media still largely fails to escape its cocoon and cover the Trump tribe out in flyover country.

Abramson may have meant that local newspaper staffs and community coverage have greatly diminished as the industry’s finances have been battered.

But that isn’t what she said.

“Our cocooning on the liberal coasts has intensified because of other factors in the past decade. One is the virtual disappearance of local newspapers, their business models irrevocably broken by the disappearance of print advertising. The Cincinnati Post shuttered in 2007, the Kansas City Kansan two years later — just two of hundreds of local papers in Red America that have merged or closed.”

A few considerations:

  • When I started covering the media business in the early 2000s, there were roughly 1450 daily papers. Fewer now, but I would estimate at least 1250 to 1300.
  • Like other doom-and-gloomers, Abramson offers as examples of closures second papers in metros that could only support one. The Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post Intelligencer similarly folded in the 2007-2009 recession, but the vast majority of closures have been very small. When the Chicago Tribune or an excellent smaller city paper like the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, goes belly up, “disappearance” will then be the right word.
  • Fulltime newsroom staff has declined from a peak of 56,400 in 2000 to about 20,000, by my estimate (the industry no longer compiles those or other embarrassing statistics). However many of those remaining journalists focus on high impact stories. Plus they are listening much better than they once did to what their audience cares about and will read.
  • My Poynter.org colleagues — Barbara Allen, Tom Jones, and Kristen Hare — dig out strong examples of terrific reporting and writing (from the growing digital-only sector too), literally every day.

David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance, shared my sentiments. Asked for comment, he wrote me in an email:

“Relatively few local newspapers have ‘disappeared’ so far and I would certainly object to the word ‘irrevocably.’  The one thing we do know is that people like to consume news, so I consider it highly likely that we will find our way to a new business model — we just don’t know what it is yet.”

Not to belabor, but Abramson’s angle of attack is irksome. She does get that she is a bonafide member — if a critical one — of the Cambridge-New York-Washington media elite, with its blinders. But please, not a demo of being out of touch with much of the rest of her own profession: reporters, editors and visual journalists still trying hard under less-than-ideal conditions.

Abramson has been promoting her book, “Merchants of Truth” — and Wednesday was hit with charges of plagiarism. She first denied the accusation but later said that she would recheck attribution in the book.

If that settles, my suggestion is that Abramson pull a Beto O’Rourke: get on the road and see all the journalism that is out there — maybe not every edition anymore but often enough to matter.

As for The Washington Post, does anyone edit these submissions?

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  • Local newspapers may not have disappeared in the literal sense, but they sure are shrinking. I have to take a magnifying glass outside with me every morning to locate the paper.