Last Friday I disputed Joshua Benton’s reporting in Nieman Lab on the extent of the decline in paid circulation at USA Today, owned by Gannett. Now Gannett has asked for a correction. I’m sure Gannett would take issue with my reporting as well; as I noted in an update, both Benton and I may have been led astray by the lack of transparency with which Gannett reports its numbers.
In fact, there’s a statement within Gannett’s request for a correction that is just pure gold regarding the circulation figures that it reports to the Alliance for Audited Media: “AAM data is used to help advertisers understand publisher reach in specific markets, not to infer readership or paid circulation.” Huh?
Surely it is news to many of us that terms such as “print readership,” “print and digital readership” and “circulation” ought to be defined by something other than their plain English meaning. In my earlier post, I concluded that it is impossible to know what Gannett’s publicly reported numbers mean. This only confirms it.
Update: Trying to write about Gannett and accurate numbers simply isn’t possible. One reader notes that USA Today didn’t start offering digital subscriptions until 2021 — and yet Gannett was reporting paid (or unpaid?) digital for USA Today to the Alliance for Audited Media starting at least in 2012. So how is that possible? Another reader hints at an answer — if you subscribe to any Gannett paper, or maybe just any Gannett daily, you get a subscription to USA Today included. Or you used to. Maybe that changed after USA Today’s paywall went up.
So it could be that USA Today’s paid circulation was far lower in 2018 than what it reported to AAN — not the 2,632,392 that Joshua Benton used, and not the 1,584,462 that I used. Instead, maybe what we ought to look at is the 631,076 print figure. And since USA Today seemed to be selling an e-paper option as well, that would bring total paid circulation in 2018 to 654,743.
Now let’s go for an apples-to-apples comparison. The 156,453 that Benton reported for USA Today’s current paid circulation is the total of print and replica. That’s a nausea-inducing decline of 76% over the four-year period, but that’s still not nearly as much as the 93% Benton’s numbers showed. It’s also a lot worse than the 33% estimate that I offered.
But wait! USA Today has been selling paid nonreplica digital subscriptions for nearly two years now. How many? As I explained, Gannett stopped reporting that figure a while back, so we don’t know. Surely it’s not the “zero” that Gannett claims on its most recent report to AAN. (It should at least be one; I mean, I bought one.) We simply can’t know how by how much USA Today’s paid circulation has declined without knowing that important figure, or whether subscriptions to other Gannett papers are included. Without access to Gannett’s internal numbers and insight into exactly what they mean, it’s an unsolveable mess.
Earlier: Did USA Today’s paid circulation drop by 93% between 2018 and 2022? The near-certain answer to that is no — yet that’s the astonishing claim that Joshua Benton makes at Nieman Lab. I knew there was a problem with his numbers as soon as I saw them, mainly because I recently put some effort into figuring out how USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett, compiles its circulation figures. So let’s dive in.
Benton reports that USA Today’s paid circulation in the third quarter of 2018 was 2,632,392 and then fell in the third quarter of 2022 to just 180,381. That’s a staggering loss of 2,452,011, or 93%. But as I’ll show, much of that apparent loss is the result of a change in the way Gannett reports its paid digital circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media.
What I was able to dig up at AAN uses slightly different time periods compared to what Benton found. I’m going to use all of 2018 rather than the third quarter because the latter wasn’t available when I looked. But it should tell the same tale. It shows that the average weekday circulation that year was 2,708,983, which is in the same ballpark as what Benton reported. A lot of that, though, consists of “affiliated publications” such as Local/Life and Sports Weekly. The circulation of the paper alone was 1,584,462. Now, pay attention to the following breakdown, because it will prove important:
Digital replica: 23,667
Digital nonreplica: 929,719
“Digital nonreplica” is the term for digital subscribers who access the website but don’t bother with the e-paper. As you can see, it comprises the vast majority of digital subscriptions — and, at some point, Gannett simply stopped reporting that number.
Now let’s look at the third quarter of 2022. Paid weekday circulation is reported as 180,381 at the top level at ANN (the figure Benton used) or 156,453, which is the number that pops up at AAN if you click through. That latter number comprises 132,176 for print and 24,277 for digital replica (the 156,453 figure, which I didn’t immediately grasp) — and zero for digital nonreplica. So, yes, print circulation is down by a stunning 79%, which may have more than a little to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. USA Today, after all, was a staple of hotels for many years. But digital replica is up slightly. And digital nonreplica simply isn’t being reported.
I encountered this recently when I was analyzing some numbers for Gannett’s Burlington Free Press in northern Vermont. I discovered that, not only had Gannett stopped reporting digital nonreplica, but that — according to confidential internal reports I had obtained — it was underreporting its total paid digital circulation by about half.
Gannett is trying very hard to sell digital subscriptions for its incredible shrinking news outlets. Keep in mind, too, that people don’t buy subscriptions to the replica edition — they buy digital subscriptions, period, and the papers themselves report how many readers are accessing the e-paper so they can tout that number to advertisers. (AAN recently explained all of this to me. As you’ll see, it’s pretty complicated.) In other word, Gannett is telling AAN how many subscribers are accessing the e-paper, but they’re keeping total digital circulation to themselves.
Now, I’m going to take a leap here and assume that USA Today’s total digital circulation was the same in 2022 as it was in 2018, or maybe even a little higher. I base that on several factors: digital circulation was up at all of Gannett’s New England properties, according to the confidential report I mentioned; USA Today’s digital replica circulation was up slightly; and Gannett has been pushing digital subscriptions hard. I even signed up for one, and it was a great deal — with a little fiddling, I can use it to access every Gannett paper in the country. Of course, there’s little in them.
With all that in mind, I came up with a guesstimate that USA Today’s paid circulation in the third quarter of 2022 was about 1,056,000. I’m building in a nonreplica figure of 900,000, a decline (as I said, unlikely) compared to 2018. Put all that together, and using a 2018 circulation figure of 1,584,462 (that is, not counting “affiliated publications”), and I come up with a drop of 33% between 2018 and 2022. Now, that’s still a lot — but it’s also in line with a lot of non-Gannett papers that Benton used for comparison.
Everything else Benton says about Gannett is right on target. The company has decimated its papers, is closing them and selling them off, and generally appears to be squeezing out the last few drops of revenue they can muster before people like top executive Mike Reed, the $7.7 million man, walk away. It’s an outrage, and we really can’t call attention to it often enough.
But the crazy circulation drop at USA Today and other Gannett dailies is more a function of Gannett’s decision to stop reporting paid digital nonreplica subscriptions than it is an actual measurement of readers fleeing for the exits.
The Boston Globe has lost its contract to print the regional edition of The New York Times at its Taunton facility. The Times will instead now be printed at the Dow Jones plant in Chicopee. Dow Jones is the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.
When the Globe’s Taunton printing plant opened in 2017, the hope was that it could turn a profit for the paper by taking on outside clients. The facility got off to a rough start, though, with publisher-owner John Henry writing a front-page note to subscribers admitting that the presses “are operating too slowly and breaking too often.” He added: “We are embarrassed. We are sincerely sorry to all those affected.” In my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I described the launch of the Taunton plant as a “disaster.”
At one point, the Globe printed the Times, the Boston Herald and USA Today. The Herald decamped for The Providence Journal some time ago. When I asked Globe spokeswoman Heidi Flood whether the Taunton facility currently has any outside work, she answered only that “we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant.” She did say that Taunton now handles the entire Globe print run. At one time the Globe was jobbing some of its run out to The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover; I’m not sure when that stopped.
I’ve heard that the Taunton plant has laid some employees off as well, but Flood did not address that when I asked her about it by email. The full text of her statement follows.
I can confirm that the Times decided not to renew their printing contract with the Globe. We worked very hard over many months to keep their business in a way that also worked for ours, but were not able to arrive at a financially sustainable agreement. While the pending NYT departure is disappointing, from a business perspective it’s the right decision and positions us more favorably for the future.
The Times’s decision to print elsewhere will not affect our Globe print operations. Taunton currently handles the entire Globe print run and we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant. First and foremost, the Globe remains committed to meeting the needs of our valuable print subscribers.
What more can be said about the latest round of Gannett layoffs? This one was telegraphed well in advance, and I wrote about what was coming three times (here, here and here) before the hammer finally came down on Friday.
We don’t know the extent of the damage; The Associated Press reported that the “company declined to provide details about the number of people losing their jobs.” The number 400 has been bandied about, but is that 400 journalists or 400 total employees? In any case, that number has not been verified. We do know that the cuts were broad and deep, from Worcester County, where, according to Grafton Common, the chain’s weekly papers were decimated, to its national flagship, USA Today.
Los Angeles Times reporter Jeong Park has provided one way of looking at what happened. Gannett owns about 250 newspapers and other properties, and, before Friday, it employed about 4,000 reporters, editors and photographers. Our three national papers together also employ about 4,000 journalists — The New York Times (1,700), The Washington Post (1,000) and The Wall Street Journal (1,300). And, unlike Gannett, they’re all growing.
We are now at a point where three biggest newspapers in the country (NYT, WaPo and WSJ) employ more journalists than 250 papers (inc. USA Today) owned by Gannett, which can't be good.
Gannett’s losses in the most recent quarter were so vast that it seems likely management will come back for another bite at the apple in a few months. After all, they’ve been on a rampage in Eastern Massachusetts, closing a number of weeklies in 2021 and 19 earlier this year (the company also merged nine papers into four). They’ve pretty much given up on local coverage, too.
Meanwhile, the company’s top executives pay themselves millions of dollars, and even the part-time board members are getting north of $200,000. And it’s been reported that CEO Michael Reed bought another 500,000 shares of Gannett stock last Tuesday, paying $1.22 million.
This feels like the end game, but it probably isn’t. There are always more papers to close, more people to lay off and more websites to strip of any real journalistic content. My heart goes out to the folks who lost their jobs on Friday. I hope they all land on their feet — and I also hope that many of them will look into the possibility of starting independent news projects in the communities they used to cover. The need and the opportunity are there.
Gannett, the country’s largest local news chain, is in a tailspin. The publisher of some 200 daily papers reported a significant loss in the second quarter — $54 million on revenues of $749 million.
According to Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for Poynter, the company is either down or missing its targets in digital and print advertising as well as print circulation. The sole bright spot: a steady rise in paid digital circulation. Extensive layoffs are on the way. Edmonds quoted a memo from Maribel Perez Wadsworth, head of the media division, in which she said: “In the coming days, we will … be making necessary but painful reductions to staffing, eliminating some open positions and roles that will impact valued colleagues.” It’s hard to see how shrinking an already diminished product is going to help.
Those of us who live in Eastern Massachusetts and environs might wonder where they are going to find any staff members to lay off. Over the past year, the chain has closed many of its community weeklies. Its dailies are still publishing, but with skeleton newsrooms.
The question with Gannett is how many of its problems are simply part of the overall local news crisis and how many are of its own making. Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School, tweeted:
The existential question from this very sobering Gannett earnings report: Is this a bellwether for the entire local news industry, or is it a company issue? The next earnings report from Lee may answer that question. https://t.co/vs4fLRXBHw
As it turned out, Lee did reasonably well, which Chris Krewson, executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers noted in a response to Franklin.
I would argue that though the challenges facing community journalism are very real, there are some unique factors at work with the current iteration of Gannett, which lost its way in the cradle back when GateHouse Media was born. GateHouse and Gannett merged a few years ago, but it was essentially a takeover by GateHouse, which has been pillaging its local titles for the past 15 or so years. Gannett’s schemes to overcome the mess in which it finds itself strike me as harebrained. Its plan to pursue sports betting isn’t going well, as Edmonds reports. Then there is its dream of getting into nonfungible tokens (NFTs). Seriously?
Gannett’s flagship is USA Today, which is still a solid paper. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll leave it pretty much alone so that they can use it as a wire service to fill up their regional and local papers. I mean, even more than they’re already doing.
Sadly, Gannett’s journalists have been on a roll, with reporters at the Indianapolis Star and The Columbus Dispatch breaking the story about a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim — and then confirming it when it was questioned by right-wing propagandists and by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. The Austin American-Statesman obtained and published video of the police (non)response to the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, after editing out the children’s screams. This is outstanding journalism, and soon Gannett will have fewer journalists.
Gannett’s greed and incompetence are going to mean fewer jobs for reporters and less coverage for local communities. It’s an ongoing tragedy, but it does open up possibilities for entrepreneurs who are looking to start new projects.
I’ve been trying to find out how widespread this is, but to no avail. Recently I learned that The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, a Gannett daily and, back in the misty past, one of the best medium-size papers in the country, is going to end home delivery and switch to the postal service instead.
What this means for print customers is unclear. You’d think there’s no way they will receive that day’s paper until the next day, or possibly the day after, although, as you’ll see in the message below, the Ledger is promising same-day mail delivery. Of course, this comes on top of the pending closure of 19 Gannett weeklies in Massachusetts, the end of Saturday print editions at many of the dailies, and numerous other cuts — including at the Ledger itself, which will switch from a print paper to an e-edition on Mondays.
As best as I can tell, the move to the USPS is being rolled out slowly at a few Gannett dailies here and there. It doesn’t seem like an all-at-once sort of thing. For instance, when I plugged some of the language from the Ledger announcement into Google, I discovered that Gannett switched to mail delivery at The Ithaca Journal of New York and The Banner-Press of Brenham, Texas, in December. I’m not coming up with others, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.
The message to Patriot Ledger subscribers, from a post office box in August, Georgia, was provided to me by a customer who lives in Quincy. It’s hard to see much good in here given that Gannett continues to cut its newsrooms and its coverage. It’s also very bad news for the paper’s loyal newspaper carriers; I reproduce a message from one of them below.
I have to say, though, that there are a few things in here that sound interesting. Ledger subscribers will be able to access any Gannett e-edition in the country, including the flagship USA Today. I might just get a digital subscription to USA Today if it means I can access other Gannett papers. Here’s most of the message:
The Patriot Ledger has been a vital part of the fabric of our community since its inception, bringing readers the reliable, local and passionate journalism you know and expect. While our commitment remains steadfast, we want to inform you of changes to your subscription.
Labor shortages have impacted newspaper deliveries across the country including the area and we want to make sure that your paper delivery is consistent. Beginning May 3, 2022, we will no longer provide home delivery of The Patriot Ledger. Delivery of your newspaper will continue and be provided via the U.S. Postal Service. The last day of home delivery will be May 2, 2022. You can expect delivery of your newspaper at the same time as your daily mail service. There will be no change to your current subscription rate.
Additionally, with more of our readers engaging with our content online, we are announcing a bold step towards our digital future. Beginning May 9, 2022, The Patriot Ledger will transition from delivering the Monday print edition to providing you a full Monday electronic edition (e-Edition), a digital version of our newspaper, available to you early morning. With the exception of Monday, you will continue to receive the print edition via USPS according to your delivery schedule.
As a loyal subscriber, we understand this change will impact you, which is why we are taking every step to ensure you have easy access to the news, sports, events and information you value most.
While a printed newspaper once was the sole means of accessing news and information, we offer many ways to connect with The Patriot Ledger. Your subscription includes unlimited digital access to patriotledger.com, where our team of journalists post updates and breaking news throughout the day, as well as our mobile apps, video, newsletters and the e-Edition….
Your local e-Edition also includes bonus magzines on various topics of interest and the full edition of USA TODAY. For quick tips on how to navigate the e-Edition visit patriotledger.com/eeditiontips.
As we make this transition, we are adding additional benefits to your subscription!
• Ad-free, 24/7 access to our USA TODAY Crossword puzzle! You can enjoy daily games by visiting puzzles.usatoday.com or through the USA TODAY Crossword app available on your iPhone or Android device.
• Universal access to all e-Editions throughout the USA TODAY Network in cities across the country, accessible via your own e-Edition. To access other newspapers, once inside the e-Edition, simply click on the icon titled Universal on the right-side navigation bar….
Thank you for your continued loyalty and support of our community-focused journalism.
So, is Gannett really making this move because of problems with its home-delivery network? Perhaps. But another Ledger customer sent me a message he received recently from a carrier who’s now out of work. Here it is:
Hello; I am writing to inform you that as of May 2, 2022, I will no longer be delivering your Patriot Ledger. The Parent company of the Patriot Ledger is the Gannett Company, they decided in their ultimate wisdom to get rid of all the Patriot Ledger Paper Carriers.
The Gannett Company has decided that they would rather pay more to have their paper delivered by the United States Postal Service. The average pay for a Patriot Ledger carrier is around $1.20 for 6 days papers (that is for all 6 days deliver $1.20). The USPS will be charging far more than this rate.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was told that I was essential worker, and I delivered the Patriot Ledger throughout Covid every day. And now that things are getting a little better, for some reason that is beyond me, my job has been eliminated. I have enjoyed all your friendships all along the way. I feel fortunate for having the opportunity to meet you all. And hope that I also helped you by delivering your paper on time and where you wanted it.
The Patriot Ledger is also going to a 5-day newspaper, Tuesday Thru Saturday. They are stopping Monday deliveries. Gannett has continued to cut services and they are now saying to their customers you will no longer have your weekday Patriot Ledger at the time you have been receiving it and you will NEVER have your Saturday paper by 8:00am.
Many of the Patriot Ledger Carriers have been with the Patriot Ledger for many years, some for well over 20 years. We had our legally signed contracts with the Gannett Company voided because the contract has always been written in favor of the Company.
I have met the nicest guys that are also doing routes husbands, fathers, grandfathers, and ladies that have delivered the Patriot Ledger longer than most of the men. I have met the nicest customers because of this route too. Have enjoyed your friendships and your many kindnesses and gifts.
I want to say it has been a pleasure delivering your Patriot Ledger, and I will miss the friends I have made over these many years. For a while both our kids were in the Military and they also were deployed to the Middle East at the same time. This very route helped me to keep my mind off everythig too. They are both thankfully home.
Your Patriot Ledger Carrier.
Do you know of other daily newspapers that are dropping home delivery in favor of mailing it out? Please let me know in the comments.
Will digital subscriptions save the newspaper business? They had better. With advertising in a death spiral, publishers have to hope that readers will pick up the slack. Progress has been slow, but it may finally be picking up.
Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that several newspaper chains, including Lee Enterprises and Gannett, have experienced significant increases in paid digital circulation. The problem is that these increases are spread over many papers, and the situation at any one of them remains dicey.
Even as the local newspaper industry, broadly speaking, has declined, there is still a *lot* of money to be made, and for many papers there is even cause for optimism. I took a look in my final article on the media beat, out today. https://t.co/DApHvltk2l
For instance, Gannett is up 46% over the past year, to 1.5 million paid digital subscriptions — yet it owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today. Those numbers need to be exponentially greater if Gannett is going to re-establish itself as a lucrative business and actually start adding rather than cutting journalistic resources.
“There’s a big misperception out there that there’s a big hole in local journalism, and I think that narrative’s been created by people who aren’t sitting in local markets,” Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Tracy. As a longtime reader of Gannett’s (previously GateHouse Media’s) community weeklies, all I’ve got to say is: You’ve got to be kidding.
In order for paid digital to work, you also have to charge enough. To go back to USA Today, I see that the cost is $9.99 a month after the first-year discount expires. That’s not bad, but it’s well behind The Boston Globe’s $30 a month. And the Globe has managed to sell a reported 235,000 digital subscriptions. Of course, the Globe, like most newspapers, offers a huge discount to new subscribers, which means it then has to figure out a way to keep them.
In order to succeed with digital subscriptions, you need good content and good technology. Many of the papers now trying to succeed in the digital space have been cut substantially. And too many newspaper websites are still clunky mish-mashes with pop-ups, pop-unders and other annoyances.
It’s better to grow than to shrink, so in that sense I guess Tracy’s story is good news. But there’s still a long way to go.
The Boston Globe’s strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions is paying off, according to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. For the six-month period ending on March 31 of this year, the Globe’s paid weekday circulation was 331,482, up 81,201, or 32%, over the same period a year earlier. On Sundays, the Globe’s paid circulation was 387,312, up 73,347, or 23%.
The increase came despite the continued shrinkage of the print edition. Weekday print was 77,679, a decline of 16%. Sunday print is 135,696, down nearly 15%. Paid digital now accounts for nearly 77% of the Globe’s circulation on weekdays and 65% on Sundays — numbers that no doubt had a lot to do with the hunger for local and regional news during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers were not nearly as rosy at the Boston Herald, which has been gutted by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paid weekday circulation, print and digital, is now 56,791, a decline of 9,686, or more than 14%. Sunday circulation is 58,461, down 14%. Digital is essentially flat, with nearly all of the decrease coming from the Herald’s fading print product. The Herald today sells an average of 22,032 print papers every weekday and 25,892 on Sundays.
The new circulation figures at the Globe and the Herald come amid a massive decline in print circulation nationwide. According to the Press Gazette, a British website that covers the news business, print circulation of the top 25 U.S. dailies fell from 4.2 million to 3.4 million over the past year, a decline of 20%.
Especially harrowing was USA Today, which lost 303,000, or 62%. As we all know, the paper is highly dependent on hotel distribution, which took a massive hit during the pandemic. Gannett recently announced that some of USA Today’s content would move behind a paywall.
Correction: I botched one of the numbers and have updated this post.
It will be interesting to see if it works. USA Today is a perfectly fine paper, but it’s not quite in the class of the Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Its principal attraction has been that it’s free, making it a quality source of national news that can easily be cited. When I link to a story in USA Today, I do so knowing that my readers will be able to access it.
On the other hand, we know that free news supported entirely by ads doesn’t work for digital newspapers, as Craigslist, Google and Facebook have destroyed the value of online advertising. I can understand why Gannett, USA Today’s corporate owner, decided it was time to get on board. I’m just not sure why someone would choose USA Today over one of the other national papers.
Then, too, USA Today’s traditional distribution routes no longer work, either. I haven’t seen any of the paper’s once-ubiquitous news boxes in years. The paper was also something generally offered free by hotels, but it could be a long time before business travel recovers from the COVID pandemic.
Gannett, as we know, is a debt-addled chain that has been slashing the newsrooms of its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies, most of which already have paywalls. The USA Today announcement says that the paper has unique value because it can draw on the resources, such as they are, of the USA Today Network. But those of us who read a Gannett community paper know the journalism flows in both directions, with out-of-town news from other Gannett papers filling up space that ought to be devoted to local coverage.
My skepticism aside, I wish USA Today the best. I know that it produces good journalism, and perhaps it appeals to those who don’t like the Times’ snark, the Post’s breathlessness or the Journal’s focus on business coverage. We’ll see whether it works.
It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.
Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.
Fortunately, USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, took a principled stand and fought the subpoena. On Saturday, the FBI backed down. There’s already little enough privacy on the internet without having to worry about the possibility that government officials will be looking over our shoulders as we’re reading.
We are in the midst of a systematic assault on the media’s role in holding the powerful to account. And it’s long past time for our elected officials to do something about it by passing legislation rather than relying on assurances by President Joe Biden that he’s ending these abuses. After all, Biden’s assurances can be undone by the next president with the flick of a pen. We need something stronger and more stable.
Barely a month ago I wrote about the revelation that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records. I observed that Trump’s actions were in line with a long string of presidential attacks on the media, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
Since then, the revelations have come at a dizzying pace. In addition to the USA Today subpoena, which strikes me as especially egregious since it targets readers rather than journalists, there have been at least two other noteworthy instances of abuse:
• In late May, CNN reported that the Trump administration had secretly obtained 2017 email and phone records of Barbara Starr, a longtime reporter for the network. The period in question was June 1 to July 31, 2017.
• In a particularly noxious abuse of the government’s power, The New York Times reported several days ago that the Justice Department had subpoenaed Google for the email records of four Times reporters — and that, though the inquiry had begun under former President Donald Trump, it continued under Biden. As recently as March, the Justice Department obtained a gag order prohibiting Google from informing the Times. That order was later amended so that a few top officials at the Times could be told, but not executive editor Dean Baquet.
“It is urgent that we hear from the attorney general about all three Trump-era records seizures, including the purported reasoning behind them and the rationale for not notifying the journalists in advance,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement released last week. “The goal must be to ensure that such abuses never occur again.”
Compounding the problem is the widely misunderstood belief that government officials are violating the First Amendment. For instance, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this past Sunday, Adam Goldman, one of the four Times reporters targeted in the Google probe, said, “The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. has a history of trampling on the First Amendment, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised. They treat the media, they treat newspapers like drug gangs.”
In fact, over the past century the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment in such a way that the protections for news gathering are exceedingly weak.
Protections for publication and broadcast are strong, which is why the press has been able to report on secret stolen documents — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden files — with few concerns about facing prosecution.
But the court has ruled that journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources. And with regard to the current string of spying revelations, the court has held repeatedly that journalists enjoy no special rights that would not be available to ordinary citizens.
President Biden recently pledged to end the practice of seizing reporters’ records, saying the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” Some observers questioned whether he actually meant it, since he’d be breaking not just with Trump’s abuses but with longstanding practice. That, in turn, led press secretary Jen Psaki to assure journalists that Biden planned to follow through on his pledge.
But what a president does, a future president can undo. To guarantee that the press will be able to perform its watchdog role, we need a federal shield law so that reporters won’t be compelled to reveal their confidential sources. Such protections — either by law or by court decision — are already in place in 49 states, with the sole exception being Wyoming.
We also need legislation that prevents the government from secretly spying on journalists’ online activities — and on readers’ activities as well.
No doubt opponents will insist that the government needs to be able to spy in order to keep us safe. But the Post, CNN and Times cases appear to involve the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to learn more about the origins of the Russia probe, including the activities of former FBI Director James Comey. The USA Today case did involve a much more serious matter. But after dropping its demands, the FBI told the BBC that “intervening investigative developments” made the information unnecessary.
Which is nearly always the case. Rarely does the government’s desire to interfere with the press’ role involve a situation that’s literally a matter of life or death. And the law can accommodate those rare instances.
In general, though, the government should go about its business without compromising the independence or freedom of the press.