Local news is collapsing, with dire consequences. Can anything save it?

Susan Benkelman

THE WASHINGTON POST – Not so long ago, the Youngstown Vindicator sent someone to cover every municipal or school board meeting in the surrounding three-county area.

“People knew that,” said Mark Brown, former general manager of the northeastern Ohio newspaper, “and they behaved.”

In other words, just the presence of a reporter helped keep local officials honest.

Those days are gone. And now so is the Vindicator. Its name and subscriber list were sold to a nearby paper that now has a Youngstown-area edition, but the family newspaper that had served the region for 150 years published its last edition on August 31, 2019.

The Vindicator is among the victims of the local-media implosion that Margaret Sullivan chronicles in Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. As her title suggests, the collapse is taking with it one of the foundations of the journalist’s craft: holding city, county and state government officials to account.

The damage goes beyond the lack of accountability, argues Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post. The erosion of local news means Americans are more polarised and more disconnected from their communities. They’re less interested in running for office. And taxpayers even pay more, according to one study she cites, as government spending and borrowing costs rise because of a lack of oversight.

In Sullivan’s conversations across the country, readers told her they were aware of the problem – they saw local news as increasingly partisan or shallow. But they apparently hadn’t made a crucial connection: The decline in quality is due to the erosion of the industry’s financial foundations. Two surveys last year, one from the Pew Research Center and one from the Knight Foundation and Gallup, showed that a majority of people believe that local news outlets are in good financial shape.

This lack of awareness of the threat facing local news is the essential problem Sullivan’s book addresses. She is sounding an alarm. She’s not the first to explore this crisis, but her book succeeds in its aim of delivering an urgent message in a concise way. It is part of a series of novella-length books that Columbia University commissions and publishes on current issues for “curious and busy” readers.

Sullivan is well-qualified to tell this story. Before joining The Post in 2016, she was the New York Times‘ public editor. But her authority for this book derives mostly from her experience at her hometown newspaper, the Buffalo News, where she was the top editor for 13 years. Her firsthand accounts, and her impressions upon revisiting her old newspaper – now much smaller than when she worked there – personalise the story.

As she surveys the damage across the country, and outside the United States as well, Sullivan finds local newsrooms that are shells of their former selves, picked over by hedge funds or distant conglomerates that have no connection to local audiences. She looks at “news deserts” with no coverage at all. Those papers that are left face a precipitous drop in advertising, which has migrated to Google and Facebook. The ground shifted further even as she was writing the book, with the coronavirus pandemic cutting into what was left of the advertising base that news organisations rely on.

Sullivan also documents the ways people are responding. An Arkansas publisher is giving readers iPads to push them to digital; one in Texas is counterintuitively doubling down on print; a Michigan woman has created a “brigade” of citizen-reporters to dig into local issues for a nonprofit news site. In Youngstown, the investigative site ProPublica has sent a reporter to the region as part of its local reporting network, while the McClatchy Co, with start-up help from Google, has launched a news site there called Mahoning Matters as part of a project to explore new business models.

She gets hope from promising work by nonprofit news organisations in Texas, Minnesota and elsewhere. Others advocate finding ways to ensure that social media platforms that profit from news help pay for it. Government support, problematic because of concerns about potential political meddling, is even on the table. A number of groups are working to solve the problem, including the nonprofit organisation where I work, the American Press Institute. There are seemingly as many proposed solutions as there are people working on it, and the answer probably depends on the community.

The old model worked because it was a buffet of offerings. News, opinions, obituaries, sports, comics and the crossword existed alongside ads, both classified and retail, and people subscribed for all those things. But when that newspaper landed on the porch, the first thing they saw was the big headline of the day – perhaps a story germinated in one of those municipal meetings like the ones the Vindicator once covered.

Those in power saw it, too, because it was right there on the front page. And even when it wasn’t, as Youngstown’s Brown said, at least they knew someone was watching.