I’ve been a journalist since 1996 and an avid consumer of newspapers since I was in high school. Before becoming an ink-stained wretch, I spent 13 years as a teacher, part of that time educating students on current events, with newspapers to guide me.
Few news reports make me sadder these days than news about the news. Except for a relatively few elite outlets, the industry is in serious decline. Entire communities are without newspapers and others are at risk of losing theirs.
The findings in a recent study by PEN America are sobering: Since 2005, newspapers have lost more than $35 billion in ad revenue and nearly half of their newsroom staffs. Since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers — about 20% of the estimated national total — have closed. There are at least two hundred U.S. counties, totaling more than three million people, with no newspaper at all. The news outlets that remain are often characterized as “ghost papers,” with few staffers and scant local reporting. Interestingly, “local TV news has declined far less, but tends to cover stories that newspapers originate, and with less depth,” reports the Washington Monthly.
The latter phenomenon has birthed a new term – “news deserts” – to describe communities that have no newspapers. The adverse effects for communities without media outlets that cover local news are almost too numerous to count. More on that later.
The latest development on the media front in Connecticut is part of a larger trend that does not involve closing the paper but shuttering its physical space and telling journalists to work remotely. The Hartford Courant, the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper, announced last week that, effective Dec. 27, its parent company was closing the Broad Street office space it has occupied around the corner from the Capitol since the mid-1940s. The paper did not say whether a post-pandemic physical newsroom would be identified later. This follows the announcement in October that, as its weekday print circulation dipped below 100,000, The Courant, owned by Tribune Publishing, would no longer print its own paper and would instead outsource that job to The Republican, a daily newspaper in Springfield, Mass.
Courant publisher and editor-in-chief Andrew Julien characterized last week’s move as “a decision about real estate needs.” Be that as it may, the move prompted a number of Twitter threads from public officials and local media watchdogs, including Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and Sen. Chris Murphy.
This is outrageous. Just another reason why our current economic order, with private equity firms and billionaires pulling all the strings, is terrible for our nation. https://t.co/VI86WEB0jn
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) December 5, 2020
The newsroom had already been “decimated and demoralized by buyouts and layoffs,” The Courant‘s guild says. Eleven years ago, the paper had 135 newsroom workers. Now there are 60. It has been hemorrhaging talented, high-profile newsroom staff who have evidently seen the handwriting on the wall. Many, such as Colin McEnroe, Dan Haar and Jeff Jacobs, haved moved voluntarily over the last three years to the Hearst Connecticut papers, leading to rumors that Hearst might actually acquire The Courant, though that would surely raise antitrust questions.
As the late David Carr exposed in the New York Times 10 years ago, Tribune has developed a shoddy reputation over the years – “a bankrupt culture,” as he put it. Its standing has not improved since Alden Global Capital, the secretive hedge fund known for buying newspapers and bleeding them dry, acquired a 32% stake in the company late last year. If Alden acquires a majority, it’ll only be a matter of time before it’s lights out.
With more newspapers going out of business, the public will be less literate in the ways of government and less aware of its problems. There is plenty of watchdog journalism still happening on the national level, fueled in part by a surge in demand. The New York Times, for example, recently topped 7 million digital subscribers and now derives more income from readers than from advertisers. Say what you want about Donald Trump, but he has been good for the business of the national media.
What happens if more small- and medium-sized newspapers close and local news all but disappears? Recent studies have shown that an absence of media coverage at all levels correlates with higher government spending and rising taxes. Perhaps worst of all, corruption increases through lack of oversight. You would think that even conservative media haters would agree that these would be dreadful outcomes.
Even if The Courant survives in the long run, there is the question of how well readers will be served by journalists who work remotely all the time, as the remaining Courant reporters and editors will presumably do. There is value to the camaraderie of the newsroom and an environment that invites people to walk in off of the street with news. But that might be a luxury that’s impossible for many smaller papers to sustain for the foreseeable future.
In the past three years, Tribune has closed the newsrooms of several of its holdings, including the New York Daily News, The Morning Call in Allentown, Penn., The Orlando Sentinel, The Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland, and The Capital Gazette in Annapolis. It is a disturbing trend and unfortunately Tribune is not the only company doing it.
As CTNewsJunkie Partner and Business Manager Doug Hardy said in his own Twitter thread, what’s needed is a new model focused on “good journalism, rather than printed paper, buildings, or publishing streaks, to rise to the challenge of rebuilding our industry.”
Or as Connecticut’s own Matt DeRienzo, who now heads the Center For Public Integrity, put it, “Alden has gotten its money back and more from profiting off the decline of democracy-essential local journalism with zero commitment to any kind of future for it.”
It looks increasingly like the only folks who care about local journalism are journalists and their diminished audiences. And therein lies the solution. CTNewsJunkie uses a for-profit/membership model embraced by its founder Dan Levine, now a legal journalist for Reuters and former colleague of mine at the now-struggling Lakeville Journal. Ditto The Berkshire Edge, where I am managing editor. The Connecticut Mirror and the New Haven Independent have gone the nonprofit route. It will be a transition for the ages but it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.