How local news can ease the angry polarization of the Trump era

Photo via Max Pixel.

Previously published at GBH News.

At the dawn of the Trump presidency four years ago, the journalist James Fallows offered a prescription for overcoming the anger and divisiveness that had given rise to Donald Trump’s toxic brand of right-wing populism: a renewed engagement with community life.

“At the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.”

Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, later wrote an entire book on the topic. But their advice was not heeded. President Trump sucked up every bit of oxygen and energy, from the Resistance to impeachment, from COVID and economic collapse to his racist rhetoric, his cruel policies and his sociopathic Twitter feed.

“We need a world in which we talk less about the president,” lamented Cardozo School of Law professor Ekow Yankah last week. “It’s not healthy.” That Yankah was being interviewed on a podcast called “Trumpcast” suggests the depth of the problem. Even now, Trump is dominating the news to a far greater extent than President-elect Joe Biden — and not in a good way. Rather than living locally, we spend all our time thinking nationally. It’s exhausting and leaves us feeling angry and alienated.

Our media in many ways are a reflection of our politics. The Trump years were very good for national news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and, God help us, cable news, especially Fox. And they were very bad for local media, especially community newspapers.

To renew civic life, you first need to renew local, independently owned newspapers and other media. I’m not talking about major regional newspapers, public radio or local TV newscasts. I’m talking about the hard but rewarding work of keeping tabs on city councils, school committees, zoning, police, development, neighborhoods and racial justice.

“There is a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers,” wrote Marc Ambinder, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy, in a recent essay for MSNBC.com. He added: “If we want a society where we can accurately understand the preferences and behaviors of everyone, we need more local journalism.”

Unfortunately, it has become nearly impossible to pay for such journalism. The causes are familiar, from the collapse of digital advertising for everyone except Google and Facebook to the rise of corporate and hedge-fund ownership that bleeds local newspapers dry.

The COVID pandemic has made the financial situation facing news organizations that much worse. According to CNN reporter Kerry Flynn, two major publicly traded chain newspaper owners, Gannett and Tribune Publishing, are near collapse. Gannett’s ad revenues were down 38% in the second quarter over the previous year and down 23% in the third quarter. Tribune was down 48% in the second quarter and down 38% in the third.

Between them, the two companies own hundreds of local papers that had been hollowed out even before the pandemic. And unlike national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal, these companies have barely gotten started on charging readers for digital access.

So what is to be done? As I’ve written a number of times previously, I think we need a variety of solutions; one approach is not going to work in every community. For-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership, even volunteer-driven projects are all doing good work in cities and towns across the country. But they remain the exception, and the overall picture continues to darken.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported recently that Congress is considering a number of ideas, including tax credits for subscribing to a local news source, tax relief for publishers, advertising subsidies, and an antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate as one in an attempt to extract some revenues from Google and Facebook.

“Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news,” Edmonds wrote. “The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.”

In Massachusetts, a bill that would create a special commission of journalists, academics and legislators to study the extent of the local-news crisis has gotten bogged down in committee, though I’m told that it could pass before the end of the year. (Disclosure: I’ve worked on the measure with state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and would be a member of the commission.)

Needless to say, a commission isn’t going to fix what’s ailing local news. Yet if we’re going to have any chance of revitalizing civic engagement and closing the chasm that has come to separate us, we need to find a way.

In late October, The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket announced that the longtime editor and publisher, Marianne Stanton, along with a local businessman named David Worth, were buying the paper back from Gannett, which had owned it for a number of years.

“I think it’s pretty cool that two Nantucketers, both descendants of the early settlers, could work together to pull this off,” said Stanton in the announcement.

I think it’s pretty cool, too. It’s hard to know what, if anything, it will lead to. But it was a step in the right direction as well as very good news for the civic life of one community. Maybe it will be the start of something.

And share your thoughts here in the comments.

How Alden Global Capital is strangling Connecticut’s Hartford Courant

Note: Susan Campbell, a Hartford Courant columnist, posted the following on Facebook earlier today, writing, “I am told the Courant is shifting focus to cover the coronavirus and the column I submitted wouldn’t be read, or run this Sunday. So here is the column I wrote.” I contacted her and asked if I could republish it at Media Nation. She gave her permission, and so here it is. Her column has also been republished by #NewsMatters, “a NewsGuild project for Digital First Media workers.” Digital First Media is an earlier name for MediaNews Group, the newspaper chain that Alden controls. — DK

By Susan Campbell

Dear Hartford Courant reader,

Your roof is on fire.

The signs have been there, but you may not be aware of the damage overhead. What you, the reader, sees are a few typos, a missed paper, or someone on the other end of the phone who cannot stop your paper delivery during your vacation. Worse, there’s no one at your local meeting, because when newspapers had more people on staff, they could afford to come to your traffic commissions, town council meetings, and panel discussions.

Nothing just happens, dear reader, but before we explore what’s going on, see if you can figure out this math: Recently, Tribune Publishing Co. announced that the company’s fourth-quarter profit was $4 million. That should be good news, but these days, newsroom blood-letting has moved from paper cuts to full-on beheadings.

And for that, you can thank Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund, which owns 32% of the Tribune company. Alden is known for one thing and one thing only: Alden kills newspapers. The corporation walks through the battlefield of struggling newspapers (which pretty much describes 99% of newspapers), lifts up the wounded, props them up at a computer, and then methodically sucks up all the resources until there’s nothing left. Their shady business practices — including an accusation that they moved employee pension assets into their own accounts — have earned the notice of the Department of Labor.

The next time you want to complain about your local coverage, remember that you have no idea how hard the dead-last-remainders of America’s newsrooms work to do what they do. They are part of a broken business model, but there is your reporter/photographer/editor, spinning as fast as s/he can.

I know. I was a remainder, until I realized I was so angry at the system I couldn’t exist in it. I left in 2012 when I thought things were pretty bad.

But this isn’t just me, a disgruntled former employee. Last May, some U.S. senators, including Sherrod Brown (husband of Pulitzer-winning newspaper columnist Connie Schultz), Tammy Baldwin and Cory Booker, wrote Alden a letter begging them to abandon their attempted hostile takeover of Gannett because newspapers are a “public good.” Gannett shareholders ultimately rejected the takeover.

Alden’s holdings include The Denver Post, where in December, members of the Denver City Council passed a resolution that called on the company to either invest in the Post or sell it. Alden has been draining the blood from that once-fine newspaper since 2011.

In January, two respected Chicago Tribune columnists wrote a New York Times op-ed calling attention to their own newspaper’s struggles as an Alden holding. In February, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution similar to Denver’s.

We need that here, in Hartford. We need a concerted effort to save the Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper in the Nation, the newspaper that printed a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and was sued for libel by Thomas Jefferson. We need a full-throated show of support, like that of state Sen. Saud Anwar and others. We, too, need to encourage Alden to put up or shut up. We, too, need wealthy people to invest in local journalism.

Mostly, we need to stop the dangerous trend that threatens our free press. According to the Pew Research Center, post-Watergate, the circulation of daily newspapers peaked in the late ’80s. About that same time, third-generation newspaper families began to lose interest in the family business, while corporations began to notice the healthy profit margins found in the newspaper industry. At a rate that accelerated as we barreled through the ‘90s, more and more newspapers became part of media conglomerates.

If the carnage continues, Alden will kill our newspaper. When that happens, we’re left with news deserts, with our “news” shoveled at us by social media, with its lack of fact-checkers and professionalism. Our information age will suffer from an appalling lack of information.

Passivity is not an option. This is our damn newspaper. This is our damn democracy.

Susan Campbell teaches at University of New Haven, and is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood.” She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.

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There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In late 2015 I paid a visit to Burlington, Vermont, to survey the damage wrought by Gannett Co., the newspaper chain that owns the Burlington Free Press. Paid weekday print circulation at the state’s largest daily had fallen from about 50,000 to 16,000. The editorial staff, which at one time was close to 60 journalists, had shrunk to around 25.

“Obviously it’s a little tougher and you do have to pick your spots,” the legendary Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who had just retired, told me. “We were always thought of as the newspaper of record because everything would be in there. I’m not sure there’s a newspaper of record technically in Vermont anymore.”

To be fair, what happened to the Free Press was not much different from what has happened to newspaper after newspaper across the country. Fortunately other media organizations in Vermont arose to fill the gap — Seven Days, a vibrant alt-weekly; VT Digger, a well-funded statewide nonprofit investigative project; and Vermont Public Radio, which had boosted its local coverage. Still, the Free Press and its corporate overlords at Gannett had failed at their mission of holding government and other institutions to account.

I offer this story because now we are being asked to save Gannett from the ravages of something much worse. And we should. The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported on Sunday that Digital First Media, the Death Star of newspaper chains, is seeking to acquire Gannett, which owns USA Today as well as about 100 other publications. Digital First owns about 50 dailies, including three in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Why should we care when Gannett has been doing such a poor job? Because things can always be worse. Gannett ownership has been awful in the usual way. Digital First, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is uniquely awful. Its decimation of the papers it owns sparked what proved to be a futile insurrection last year at its flagship, The Denver Post. Newsrooms have literally been closed, with journalists forced to fend for themselves, from the Fitchburg paper to, most recently, The Record of Troy in upstate New York.

Executives at chains such as Gannett and GateHouse Media, hardly beloved at the local level, nevertheless seem to be trying to figure out a long-term plan. Gannett has remained committed to investigative reporting. GateHouse has set up a business-services and marketing division known as ThriveHive, which, if nothing else, suggests that the company is committed to staying in business. Digital First, by contrast, appears to be engaged in what economists refer to as “harvesting” — that is, taking as much money out of the shrinking newspaper business as possible before closing the doors and turning off the lights.

“The dirty little secret that DFM [Digital First Media] learned is that — at least for now — it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent each year will cancel,” writes Philly.com columnist Will Bunch. “Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s.”

And to think that at one time Gannett was considered the poster child for greedy corporate newspaper chains. In his classic series of books dating back to the 1980s called “The Media Monopoly,” the late media critic Ben Bagdikian labeled Gannett as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States,” noting that the profit margin at some of its local papers was an “astonishing” 30 percent to 50 percent. Bagdikian also described Gannett as “an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of creating self-serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics.”

So here we go again. Gannett, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved. Talk about defining deviancy down. The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.

There is a certain irony in the dilemma now facing Gannett. The company’s model of downsizing newsrooms and driving up profits helped create the crisis that faces the newspaper business today. As newspapers became less comprehensive and less interesting, they lost readers, thus prompting repeated rounds of cuts to keep those profit margins up. Not to push this theory too far — the decimation of advertising-funded news at the hands of digital media is a much larger factor. Still, Gannett-style slash-and-burn management played a role.

Now Gannett is reaping what it sowed. We should all hope that Gannett’s board is successful in fighting off Digital First. But we should also understand that this is strictly a choice between the lesser of two evils. Democracy deserves better.

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Rob Curley out, jobs eliminated at Orange County Register

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy
Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy

Digital news pioneer Rob Curley is out as editor of the Orange County Register, whose acquisition by Digital First Media was completed earlier today. The story was broken by the Orange County Business Journal.

Gustavo Arellano, the editor of OC Weekly, adds that some 50 to 70 employees are losing their jobs at the Register and its sister paper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise. These are “mostly on the sales, circulation, and marketing side,” Arellano writes, a sign that Digital First—which also owns several other papers in Southern California—is consolidating its business operations.

A little more than a year ago I spent a good chunk of a day at the Register as part of my book project. Curley, who made his bones as an early digital guy at the Lawrence Journal-World a dozen years ago, followed by stops at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun (among other places), allowed me to spend a considerable amount of time with him and answered all questions. However, it was completely off the record, so I can’t share with you anything I learned. I can tell you it wasn’t all that eventful.

The next day, Kushner—who had tried to purchase the Boston Globe and Maine’s Portland Press Herald before leading a group that bought the Register in 2012—stepped down a day before I was to interview him. Kushner’s emphasis on print, and his head-turning moves to hire staff and buy and launch newspapers (including a short-lived daily in Los Angeles), earned him national recognition. Unfortunately, a shortage of funds led him to dismantle what he had built in very short order.

Digital First bought the Register and the Press-Enterprise for $49.8 million after the US Department of Justice convinced a federal judge that a higher bid by Tribune Publishing, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union Tribune, should be rejected because it would reduce competition.

It struck a number of observers, including me, that the government was engaged in outdated thinking that no longer applied to the shrinking, money-losing newspaper business. Tribune has gone through numerous gyrations over the years, but the LA Times has remained an excellent newspaper. It almost certainly would have been a better steward of the Register and the Press-Enterprise than Digital First.

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