Had Your Fill of Beach Reads?
Try this short tale about local news, democracy and society
Don’t be fooled by the title -- Margaret Sullivan’s book – Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy – is not a scholarly tome for journalists who are on the front lines of a crumbling industry.
At 81pages (including footnotes) it is readable and aimed at a general audience interested in the crucial role journalism plays in a democratic society.
Sullivan, the media columnist at the Washington Post, writes unsentimentally – there is no pining for the smell of newspaper ink, the roar of the presses or the long gone pre-internet era of the news industry.
Instead she sounds an alarm “alerting citizens to the growing crisis in local news that has already done serious harm to our democracy: further polarizing our society, providing less incentive to vote, and failing to keep public officials accountable.”
She deftly tells the tale by doing what reporters do best: going out into the field and talking to the people involved in the story.
Sullivan visits Youngstown Ohio where the only daily paper, the
Vindicator , that has been publishing a print edition since 1869 has been forced to close down like so many other papers across the country.
Sullivan and one of the paper’s editors attended a community meeting where residents mourned the loss of the paper they grew up with – some with tears in their eyes. The editor cynically wondered how many actually subscribed to the paper now.
Circulation had sunk to about 25,000 daily and 32,000 on Sunday; about a quarter of what it was in the late 1970s.
The situation prompted the paper’s editor, Mark Sweetwood to
remember a column written by the late Mike Royko in 1978 when the Chicago Daily News was going out of business.
“When a new dictator takes over a country, one of the first things he does is seize or close the newspapers. Apathy isn’t as heavy-handed as a dictator. But it can get the same job done,” Royko wrote.
It is true that Sullivan’s intended audience – the American public -- appear to be unaware that an important piece of American democracy is near extinction.
According to a Pew Center for Research study, 71 percent of American’s believe that local news outlets are doing well financially but only 14 percent said they have paid for a news service.
In the past 15 years, 2,100 newspapers have ceased to exist leaving as many as 1,800 communities without any local news outlet at the start of 2020, according to a report by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The report, one in a series done by the school, notes that many of the 6,700 surviving papers have become ‘ghost newspapers’ – mere shells of their former selves.
Between 2008 and 2018, the number of reporters and editors dropped from 71,000 to 35,000, the Hussman study found. Large regional dailies lost the most – about 24,000. Many large daily papers which often had a staff of several hundred journalists to cover every aspect of the community in the late 1990s are now down to just a handful reporters scrambling to cover the basic news of the day.
Other than local newspaper journalists, who else is going to hold government agencies accountable for how they spend taxpayer dollars, Sullivan wonders.
Who will do the kind of reporting that Buffalo News staff writer Barbara O’Brien did when she uncovered that a small town police chief who was retiring received an extra $100,000 to leave?
“One of the things that local newspapers have done well, generally, over many decades is to do a kind of granular government coverage that we don’t see in other kinds of news media,” Sullivan said in an interview with the school of journalism at Northwestern University.
“That’s not to say that a local radio reporter doesn’t do a great job or that local TV can't do very good investigative work. But local newspapers particularly have a history of showing up at every board meeting, maybe even the committee meetings, working these sources over time, and being able to get at, through this detailed beat and local coverage, how people’s tax dollars are being spent.”
Sullivan also notes that uncovering corruption and providing useful information is not the only function of a local paper.
“…a newspaper’s purpose isn’t only to keep public officials accountable; it is also to be the village square for an entire metropolitan area, to help provide a common reality and touchstone, a sense of community and place,” Sullivan writes in her book.
There are some bright spots in the media landscape, notably the citizens of East Lansing Michigan that suggest citizens do notice when there community is being ignored by the media.
Sullivan tells their stories too.
Alice Dreger, a former professor at Michigan State University created the all-volunteer nonprofit news site East Lansing Info.
These citizen journalists discovered that East Lansing had a hidden pension debt of $200 million,that a retaining wall built with public and federal money had been benefiting the city attorney and the city was selling property on eBay.
Sullivan also reports on the global media industry that seems to be struggling as much as it is in the United States.
Even Pope Francis noticed the loss of local media, Sullivan writes.
“It is the most genuine and the most authentic in the mass-media world,” he told a group of international journalists in 2019.
Meanwhile Anna Masera, the ombudswoman for LaStampa, a daily paper in Turin, Italy, tells Sullivan that in Italy print circulation has dropped from 2.4 million daily in 2008 to less than a million in 2019.
Sullivan concludes her book with some interesting observations – many of the cities that have lost their seven-day a week home delivered papers are among the poorest in the nation where advertising revenue is weak and residents may not have consistent access to the internet.
What worries Sullivan’s interview subjects is that without local journalism poor people and advocates for the poor have far fewer ways to get their message out.
“Stories about poverty and hunger are not the kind of content that gets a lot of clicks,” said Sullivan, who also worked for several years as the New York Time’s public editor.
Still, she was flooded with reader’s reactions when she wrote a column describing how the paper reported heavily on poverty and economic inequality it was “dwarfed” by stories that appeal or were meant to appeal to upper income readers.
“The column hit a nerve,” Sullivan writes. “I rarely had more reader response, most of it calling for more attention to poverty or criticizing the glitzy stories about apartments that only the one percent could ever hope to afford.”
The bottom line is that information – the gathering, analyzing and writing of it – is not free. Reporters and editors have to be paid, newspapers need to be able to afford to have lawyers on call and that’s just to name a few of the costs of even a weekly publication.
Sullivan says she is hopeful that while the downturn may continue, those who really care about journalism will work to keep it going. Although much effort has gone into shoring up the industry -- more work needs to be done.
“The loss of local news will continue, especially in the rural or remote areas that the newer efforts are unlikely to reach,” she writes.
“We must support existing news organizations and keep them operating as long as possible. We must encourage and sustain the new efforts that are filling in at least some of the gaping holes, and are becoming more important every day.”