And then on Thursday came more devastating news. Weighed down under enormous debt, the McClatchy newspaper chain — one of the nation’s largest newspaper publishers and owner of the Miami Herald among many others — was filing for bankruptcy protection.
“There have been many sad days for newspapers over the last few years but [Thursday] might be the saddest yet,” said Joel Kaplan, a journalism professor at Syracuse University.
It’s no exaggeration to say that much of the American newspaper industry is in a death spiral. One in 5 newspapers has shuttered since 2004; newspaper employment is down by nearly half.
Yet local newspapers are relatively well-trusted — and the vacuum created as they fade allows false information to spread.
Against this backdrop, some Duke University research is both deeply disturbing and strangely heartening. “Local newspapers are suffering but they’re still (by far) the most significant journalism producers in their communities,” was how Nieman Lab’s headline summed it up in September.
In 100 communities across the nation, the study found, “local newspapers produced more of the local reporting in the communities we studied than television, radio, and online-only outlets combined.”
When I followed up Friday with Philip Napoli, one of the study’s researchers, he told me that the results surprised him.
“When you’re looking for actual, original local reporting that fills a critical information need, it’s still newspapers that are, by far, the primary source,” the Duke public-policy professor said.
And it makes him think that policymakers, philanthropists and other funders should reevaluate their priorities, which tend to focus on digital-only news organizations in communities. While promising in many ways and growing fast, these newer organizations in 2016 were providing only 10 percent of the original local reporting in the study’s 100 communities, he said.
“It’s an unpopular idea but what if propping up the legacy outfits is the most effective thing you can do to preserve local news?” Napoli said.
That’s exactly what McClatchy’s vice president for news, Kristin Roberts, was getting at Thursday in a long Twitter thread, detailing the important work her company’s newsrooms are doing — and intend to continue while McClatchy reorganizes under bankruptcy protection.
She noted the Kansas City Star’s investigation into a foster-care-to-jail pipeline. The investigation found “an epidemic of kids who age out of the system without the skills or support to survive on their own.” And she pointed to the Miami Herald and its continued groundbreaking coverage of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking.
She proceeded to give examples from across the country — at the Fresno and Sacramento Bee papers, at the State in Columbia, S.C., and many others, including McClatchy’s D.C. operation.
There are those who think that almost all newspaper companies — even in their print-and-digital form — are a lost cause. Warren Buffett’s right-hand man, Charlie Munger, is one of these as he made clear just days ago. “The revenue goes away and the expenses remain and they’re all dying,” he said, according to the Financial Times. “There’s nothing that can be done.”
After spending the first three decades of my career at one of Buffett’s papers, the Buffalo News, I’m not willing to accept that. Even now, my former newsroom — down by about half from its peak — is doing critically important work, not just crucial watchdog journalism (insider trading by a congressman) but cultural coverage (memories of a concert venue) that knits the community together.
Amid this nightmare financial scenario, what can be done?
Napoli, for one, thinks that American citizens and our big thinkers need to buckle down — fast — about substantial policy changes that could involve both direct and indirect public funding for local journalism. It “would take us in a more European direction,” he said.
That notion, once radioactive in journalism because it seems to threaten the independence of news organizations, must now be taken seriously.
Nicholas Lemann, the former dean of the Columbia University journalism school, explored the subject in a recently published New York Review of Books piece, writing that public-service journalism — no matter where or how it is produced — “needs some outside support system or it will disappear.”
He concludes that “it’s going to take a whole new set of arrangements, and a new way of thinking, to solve the present crisis.”
As recent headlines make clear, that crisis is deepening by the day. The journalism is more important than ever. And there’s no time to waste.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan