It was a model of how journalism can work at this moment: The local reporters collaborated with the Marshall Project, a national nonprofit that covers criminal justice; and the work was republished across the state, including in the Clarion Ledger newspaper.
But when I asked Ganucheau to assess local journalism nationally, he was blunt — and far from positive. “It feels overwhelmingly bleak,” he said.
The 28-year-old journalist elaborated. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep thinking about what Mississippi’s elected officials are getting away with,” he said, “because of how impossible things have become in the shrinking legacy newsrooms across this state.”
With its 14-member newsroom, Mississippi Today is by far the largest in the state, he said. Only 20 years ago, a typical regional newspaper boasted a newsroom staff of at least 100; larger ones, as in Cleveland and Detroit, had 300 journalists or more.
I share his worry.
When I put out a call on Twitter recently, asking for examples of outstanding local journalism of the past year, I was flooded with worthy suggestions of how local journalists held public officials to account, uncovered wrongdoing, stood up for the voiceless.
The Boston Globe investigated how police cover up the crimes of their brethren. The Austin American-Statesman and KVUE dug into the death of Javier Ambler while being arrested by police; and the staff of the Louisville Courier-Journal never let up on the infamous police killing of Breonna Taylor.
Phil Williams of WTVF, the CBS affiliate in Nashville, uncovered how Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has been on an $80 million, no-bid “spending spree” for coronavirus supplies, with some contracts going to politically connected companies.
This watchdog journalism was especially impressive given the troubles of the local-news business. And within the industry itself, there were some hopeful signs: Virginia-based Axios bought a small local news start-up, the Charlotte Agenda, where revenue has soared; there are plans to expand the model into other cities. In Tennessee, the digital Daily Memphian came on strong, competing with Memphis’s 179-year-old Commercial Appeal newspaper: “about as close as a major American city has gotten to a digital news site that can go toe-to-toe with the local daily newspaper,” Harvard’s Nieman Lab wrote. And collaborations such as Spotlight PA and States Newsroom shored up statehouse coverage.
Despite those flickers of good news — and others, like the emergence of the Tiny News Collective, which helps people start community news sites — journalism remains in a state of emergency. Increasingly under the control of corporate chains backed by private equity firms, far too many American newsrooms are hemorrhaging staff.
Fifty-five news outlets have closed for good since the pandemic began — and that’s on top of more than 2,000 newspapers that have folded since 2004. Thousands of local journalists have been fired or furloughed.
“A crisis within a crisis,” as Gabby Miller of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism put it, describing an industry that had already been hit hard by structural change — the precipitous loss of advertising revenue to behemoths such as Facebook and Google — before getting walloped by the economic downturn.
Traditional newspapers bore the brunt because their business still depends somewhat on print advertising. And, against the odds, they’re still doing some of the best work.
I spent a lot of this past year fielding questions about the troubled state of local news. My book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” was published last summer, and because of the pandemic, my real-life book tour was canceled. That had one advantage: I found myself talking, via Zoom, to more far-flung audiences, in “places” from New York City’s Strand Books to Rappahannock County, Va., to Sioux Falls, S.D.
Wherever they were, people pressed me on the same point: Okay, you’ve laid out the problem. Now, what’s the solution?
I was forced to give an answer that they found as unsatisfactory as I did: There is no obvious, single fix; there are only pieces of the puzzle that need to be found and fit together — as quickly as possible. Subscribing to your city’s newspaper or supporting your local news website is a necessity, but it’s not enough.
Smart people are working on bigger answers. An initiative from the City University of New York’s journalism school helped bring $10 million in advertising revenue from city agencies to local news outlets. If replicated around the country, the project “could be a game-changer,” Sarah Bartlett, the school’s dean, told me.
The American Journalism Project, the Knight Foundation, the Texas Tribune: All are focused on solutions. And a sweeping antitrust suit against Google could bring relief, if successful, because “the duopoly” — Facebook and Google — have sucked up so much digital advertising revenue.
But all of this takes time. None of it is certain. And meanwhile, the cutbacks and closures keep coming.
Almost miraculously, essential local journalism keeps coming, too. But for how long?
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