‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

Previously published at GBH News.

In response to the rampaging vulture capitalism that was threatening to destroy their newspaper, union employees at the Hartford Courant last year launched a campaign to find a nonprofit organization that would save their jobs and the journalism their community depends on.

Not only did they fail, but the situation at the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America, just got infinitely worse.

Meanwhile, 300 miles to the south, a similar effort was under way to save The Baltimore Sun. It paid off big-time, as the Sun and several sister papers are now on the verge of being acquired by a nonprofit foundation that will operate them in the public interest.

No doubt you’ve read a lot here and elsewhere about the local news crisis, and about the role of hedge funds and corporate chain owners in hollowing out once-great newspapers that were already struggling.

Yet what we don’t talk about often enough is the sheer random nature of it all — and why we assume there’s nothing that can be done about a hedge fund destroying a paper here or a nonprofit or benevolent billionaire saving a paper there. We have been so conditioned to thinking that the untrammeled forces of the market must be allowed to play out that we’ve lost sight of what we’re losing. It shouldn’t be this way.

Last week was a particularly fraught moment in the collapse of local journalism.

First we learned that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the most avaricious newspaper owner in the country (don’t just take my word for it; as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post puts it, “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved”), was making a $630 million bid to increase its share of Tribune Publishing — whose holdings include the Courant — from 32% to 100%.

The announcement came with at least a little bit of good news: Alden would spin off The Baltimore Sun to a nonprofit. Even better, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, was in a position to block Alden if he so chose.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter speculated that wouldn’t happen. But hope springs eternal — or at least until last Friday. That’s when Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong himself might be looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he got in. Worse, Soon-Shiong was said to be looking at offloading his papers to a larger media group. Though neither Alpert nor his soures said so, Alden would be the most likely buyer.

Soon-Shiong, fortunately, denied he’d lost interest in newspapers. But Alpert is a good reporter, so it’s hard to believe that there isn’t something to it.

Call it Mogul Roulette.

So let’s survey the landscape, shall we? Tribune’s papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Courant and others, will be gutted if the Alden deal goes through. In fact, the Courant is already operating with neither a printing press nor a newsroom.

On the other hand, The Baltimore Sun has been granted a new lease on life. We don’t know what’s going to happen in L.A. or San Diego. And, here and there, large regional papers with either strong private ownership (The Boston Globe, the Portland Press Herald, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Seattle Times) or nonprofit control (The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and, soon, the Sun) are providing their communities with the news and information they need, even if they still face challenges.

This situation is unacceptable. Reliable news is vital to democracy, and though we don’t necessarily need legacy newspapers to deliver it, they remain the most widespread and efficient means for doing so. As the media scholar Alex Jones has written, newspapers continue to produce the overwhelming share of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves — what Jones calls the “iron core.” We shouldn’t be dependent on whether the newspaper in our community is owned by someone who believes in journalism’s civic mission or who simply sees it as a piggy bank to be depleted before moving on to the next victim.

Several years ago I had a conversation about newspaper ownership with Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School; he would later go on to write “Democracy without Journalism?,” a call for (among other things) greatly increased funding for public media. Why, I asked him, should communities have so little control over who owns their local newspaper?

We didn’t come up with any answers that day, although Pickard did suggest that antitrust laws be used more aggressively. These days, unfortunately, we are dealing with the antitrust legacy of Robert Bork, who developed a theory that any amount of monopolization is just fine as long as it doesn’t drive up prices.

The Bork doctrine makes no sense in the shrinking newspaper business. At one time Tribune Publishing, then known as tronc, proposed uniting the L.A. Times, the Union-Tribune and, in the middle, the Orange County Register, whose previous owner, Aaron Kushner, had steered into bankruptcy. Soon-Shiong could have been the savior of all three papers instead of just the two he bought from tronc. Instead, a federal judge ruled that such a combination would violate antitrust laws because it might drive up the price of ads. (Your honor, we need to drive up the price of ads.) Yet, paradoxically, Bork’s theories say nothing about giant chains stretching across the country and destroying local newspapers.

What comes next? Maybe Soon-Shiong will step forward and outbid Alden for the rest of Tribune, placing the entire chain in much better hands. Or maybe he’ll sell to Alden. In any case, it’s unacceptable for the fate of local journalism to be left to the whims of unbridled capitalism. We need to start thinking about what alternatives to that model might look like.

Ben Franklin would be horrified at what the Postal Service is doing to newspapers

Benjamin Franklin, publisher and postmaster general

As if local newspapers didn’t have enough to contend with, they are now being threatened by the Postal Service. According to Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post, newspapers are simply not being delivered in some parts of the country because of the recent mail meltdown. And publishers are facing a rate increase of as much as 9% in 2022, cutting deeply into their already precarious bottom lines.

“These are little, tiny rural communities, and typically papers like mine are the only sources of information about that community,” Brett Wesner, chair of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of 12 papers in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, told Bogage. “Most don’t have digital coverage of any kind. Most don’t have radio stations. We are the source of community information, both in terms of covering community events but also the city council, the school board, the county commission.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that American newspapers were built on reliable postal service and affordable rates. As the Post notes, the first postmaster general was Benjamin Franklin, who was himself a newspaper publisher. Paul Starr, in his sweeping history of journalism, “The Creation of the Media” (2004), wrote that newspapers were given a boost starting in Colonial times through postal subsidies. By contrast, European governments, more wary of the press, kept postal rates artificially high.

In his book “Democracy without Journalism?” (2019), Victor Pickard put it this way:

Because the postal system served a higher civic purpose as a news and information infrastructure upon which a self-governing populace depended, policymakers determined that the state would directly subsidize the dissemination of newspapers with low postal rates.

That policy, Pickard wrote, was supported by founders such as George Washington and James Madison and prevailed until the “market fundamentalists” of the Reagan era began to argue that the Postal Service should be run like a business and turn a profit. And, of course, that move was hypercharged under President Donald Trump, who appointed an unqualified (at best) postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who undermined postal operations in what may have been an attempt to suppress mail-in voting and help Trump win re-election.

So why not shift to digital delivery? That option is available to larger daily papers, especially as the steep decline of advertising takes away one of the last remaining reasons for having a print edition. The Salt Lake Tribune, our only nonprofit major metro, is moving from daily to weekly print in order to save money.

But the tiny newspapers, mostly weeklies, to which Brett Wesner refers most likely don’t have that option. Their communities may not have broadband, and the papers themselves may not even have websites. Print is vital for them to be able to serve the public. Unfortunately, it looks like one of Trump’s final legacies will be to make it that much harder for them to survive.

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Book review: Why listening to community voices could help revive local news

Philadelphia and its environs are emblematic of what’s gone wrong with local news. The area is served by a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a powerhouse public radio station, WHYY, as well as various television newscasts. But the focus of those outlets is regional, not local. At the grassroots neighborhood and community levels where people actually live, journalism is scarce and looked upon with suspicion.

Rebuilding local news in places like the Philadelphia area is the subject of Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust.

Read the rest at The Arts Fuse. And talk about this review on Facebook.

There’s no reason to rule out a government bailout of local journalism

Photo (cc) 2014 by MIKI Yoshihito

I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot in the weeks and months ahead about whether and how government should provide a boost to local journalism — in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now on its knees.

Recently I reviewed Victor Pickard’s new book, “Democracy without Journalism?,” which is, among other things, a call for public assistance. Pickard’s argument for fundamental media reform and increased public investment in journalism was relevant before the pandemic, and is even more so now.

Today I want to touch briefly on a back-and-forth between Politico media columnist Jack Shafer and Mike Blinder, publisher of Editor & Publisher, a leading trade magazine for the newspaper business. Shafer is against a government bailout, arguing that newspapers have been in decline for decades, and that the pandemic is merely speeding up the end game. Blinder, naturally, is for public assistance. First, a bit of Shafer:

It might make sense for the government to assist otherwise healthy companies — such as the airlines — that need a couple of months of breathing space from the viral shock to recover and are in a theoretical position to repay government loans sometime soon. But it’s quite another thing to fling a life buoy to a drowning swimmer who doesn’t have the strength to hold on. Newspapers are such a drowning industry.

Now Blinder:

Perhaps the problem with Shafer is that he still thinks a newspaper is a singular paper product as he lives in a binary world where you either work for a newspaper or a “pure play” digital product like Politico or Slate, where he previously worked. Come on, Jack, you know better. Just because news publishers proudly keep the word “paper” in their branding does not mean that the end product must be printed on pulp.

Although I disagree with some of what Shafer says, he does make one good point — that it would be outrageous to reward chain newspaper owners that have been hollowing out their coverage for years so they could squeeze out a few drops of profit for their hedge-fund owners and corporate shareholders. At the very least, I wouldn’t want to see any money go to Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group or to Gannett unless it is matched by investments in journalism that those companies have, up to this point, shown no inclination to make.

We should also acknowledge that indirect government funding is already propping up a lot of the local and regional news infrastructure. Nonprofit media such as public broadcasters and local digital news organizations like the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and Texas Tribune thrive in part because of tax advantages that amount to a government subsidy. (Public broadcasters receive some direct government funding, too.) Major newspapers may take the same route in the years ahead, with The Salt Lake Tribune leading the way.

My own view is that local news organizations, including newspapers, should be eligible for government bailout money just as other businesses are. As Shafer notes, there is always the problem of journalistic independence when the government gets involved. But structures can be set up that insulate news organizations from interference.

Former NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller tells Shafer that the current governing structure for NPR has created an “untenable structure for supporting independent journalism.” But even though NPR often strikes me as overly cautious and deferential to power, it is also our leading source of free, high-quality journalism.

We need a variety of different business models for local news — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative and even volunteer. At the moment, most local news is based on the for-profit model, and that’s what’s in danger of being destroyed by the pandemic.

Right now, newspapers — print and digital — need a bailout. We can worry about what sort of relationship the government should have with the news business once the crisis has abated.

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A new book calls for media reform. The pandemic may give those ideas a boost.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for a book about the future of news.

In “Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society” (Oxford University Press), Victor Pickard calls for vastly increased funding for public-interest reporting and public media, newsrooms that are run democratically by journalists and members of the community, and breaking up or strictly regulating monopolies such as Google and Facebook.

Back in those golden days of, say, early March, Pickard’s agenda would likely have been dismissed, at best, as intriguing but unrealistic and, at worst, as representing an unacceptable intrusion by government that would inevitably compromise journalism’s watchdog role.

But then came the instant recession caused by COVID-19 and, with it, alarmed calls for federal action to save journalism — especially local journalism, already in extremis. Among those demanding action: Washington Post columnist Margaret SullivanCraig Aaron, the co-CEO of the media-reform organization Free Press; and Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, the co-founders of Report for America.

How bad is it? The news-business analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that readership of newspaper websites is exploding — yet advertising is plummeting so quickly that losses are piling up. Every day, it seems, comes news of more papers eliminating print editions, cutting wages and laying off reporters. Which is actually the ideal set of circumstances for Pickard to make his argument that the contradictions of for-profit media have reached something of an endpoint. As an alternative, he proposes what he calls a “social democratic” model for journalism.

An associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, Pickard is a protégé of Robert McChesney and a former fellow at the aforementioned Free Press and the New America Foundation. The case he puts forth is that not only should government play a much bigger role in ensuring the health of journalism, but that the extreme market libertarianism that rules the media today is a relatively new phenomenon.

As Paul Starr (in “The Creation of the Media,” 2004) and others have before him, Pickard observes that the American press got an enormous boost starting in Colonial times by way of generous postal subsidies — a benefit that lasted until several decades ago, when market fundamentalists began demanding that the Postal Service cover its expenses.

Moreover, various regulatory efforts aimed at reducing commercialism in radio and television bore little fruit. By the late 1940s, Pickard says, they had pretty much run their course, and some of the forward-looking leaders of that era were pushed out of public service during the McCarthy-era crusade against progressives and reformers. “The alarm bells quieted, plans for bold reforms receded, and the status quo quietly but assuredly reasserted itself,” Pickard writes. “Nevertheless, it is important to recall that none of this was inevitable; it could have gone quite differently.”

One theme that Pickard turns to repeatedly is the idea that “positive rights,” as he calls them, should be regarded as important as “negative rights” when thinking about media policy. What are negative rights? As Pickard describes them, they protect a media owner from government regulation, something that has come to be seen in many circles as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

But negative rights matter a great deal, as they involve First Amendment protections such as the freedom not to be censored, protection against abusive libel cases and the right not to have limits put on political speech, including the endorsement of candidates. Unfortunately, endorsements are already endangered given the increasing prominence of nonprofit news organizations, which are prohibited from boosting candidates as a condition of keeping their tax-exempt status.

By contrast, positive rights, in Pickard’s formulation, involve the public’s right to a diverse, democratic media. Here’s how he describes it: “True inclusion means that communities are not only receiving high-quality news, but are also deeply engaged in the news-making process itself. Community members should be involved in the governing process and empowered to organize their own newsrooms and collaborate in participatory journalism. Community engagement in the news-making process is the best way to create a new kind of journalism, one that is accountable and trustworthy.”

This sounds worthy, but I’m concerned about what it would look like in practice. A strong news organization is often the result of one person’s vision, or that of a small group of people. Opening things up to democratic governance runs the risk of lowest-common-denominator journalism in which some members of the community demand that certain stories be covered, or not covered, because of individual or group sensitivities.

That’s a potential hazard with cooperatively owned news organizations, an idea that Pickard supports. I’m currently tracking The Mendocino Voice, a digital news outlet that is transitioning to the co-op model. I’m interested to see if they can pull it off, and I wish them well. But a healthy news ecosystem requires different models — for-profit, nonprofit, co-ops, volunteer projects and the like. On several occasions Pickard suggests that we’ve hit the limit with regard to for-profits and even traditional nonprofits. I’m not willing to go that far.

Where I would agree wholeheartedly with Pickard is that our public media system is woefully underfunded. Not only does Pickard document the exponentially greater sums spent on public television and radio in virtually every other Western democracy, but he also comes up with the perfect anecdote to illustrate his point: he tells us the federal government’s annual contribution to PBS — about $445 million a year — is considerably less than the $626 million the Pentagon spends on its public-relations office.

A well-funded PBS and NPR, insulated from political pressure, Pickard says, could go a long way toward solving the local-news crisis by ramping up coverage of communities that have been abandoned by legacy newspapers.

“Transforming the U.S. media system into a democratic force,” Pickard writes in conclusion, “requires a robust policy program of regulating or breaking up information monopolies, creating public alternatives to commercial news media, and empowering media workers, consumers, and communities to engage with and create their own media.”

The journalism crisis has been with us for a decade and a half, and it’s only become more acute over time. The coronavirus pandemic underscores two realities: we need local news, and there may be no reliable way to pay for it through traditional market forces.

Pickard outlines one set of possible solutions. Policymakers would do well to consider his ideas — and to act before the news we need to govern ourselves becomes one more victim of the virus that is currently upending our way of life.

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