The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cancel in protest? Or stay with a local newspaper that’s being strip-mined for profits?

From left, East Bay Times reporters Matthias Gafni, Thomas Peele, Harry Harris, Erin Baldassari and David Debolt react to their Pulitzer Prize win for breaking news at their office in downtown Oakland, Calif., in April 2017. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Jeffrey Miller might be the ideal news consumer: He’s well-informed, thoughtful and understands the role good journalism plays in American democracy.

And he has a question, one that might seem small, personal and inconsequential but that goes to the heart of a vexing problem.

For 20 years, he has subscribed to the print edition of his local newspaper, the Mercury News in San Jose. (He also pays for the digital versions of The Washington Post and the New York Times.)

He has watched “the Merc” decline from a vibrant, well-staffed watchdog and ambitious chronicler of its community to a sort of ghost — especially since the paper’s purchase several years ago by Digital First Media, one of the worst villains in the decline of regional newspapers.

The company now wants to buy Gannett’s papers, including USA Today and many smaller local papers — terrible news in an industry that’s almost become numb to grim new developments. (Last week was particularly brutal for the news business, with layoffs announced at many digital outlets as well as newspapers.)

Controlled by a hedge fund, Digital First strip-mines its newspapers, drastically cutting newsroom staffs and squeezing profit from these operations with no apparent regard for journalism or their future viability.

“The malign genius of the private equity business model . . . is that it allows the absentee owner to drive a paper into the ground, but extract exorbitant profits along the way from management fees, dividends, and tax breaks,” wrote the American Prospect magazine in its definitive look at the problem.

“By the time the paper is a hollow shell, the private equity company can exit and move on, having more than made back its investment.”

And though the problem is widespread — pervasive, even — Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University professor, described Digital First as “the most avaricious of the newspaper chains these days.”

Miller told me in an email last week that he wants to support local journalism and the reporters and editors who produce it.

But he sees less and less value in his newspaper. And he’s concerned that his subscription dollars are serving only to encourage these owners.

“The reality is that the only reason I keep my Mercury News subscription is out of guilt,” he wrote.

Although there’s still a handful of sports and business columnists he reads, he finds the paper haphazardly put together and full of day-old wire copy.

“The sports page does not even put in stories about the games from the night before anymore because they supposedly ended after deadline,” Miller added. “They used to be able to do this, no problem.”

Miller offers a stark summation of his dilemma: “The paper has become almost useless to me, and it feels like paying for it is only helping a hedge fund instead of advancing journalism.”

Miller asked for my thoughts on what subscribers like him should do, partly because I’ve written many times about the demise of local news and about the particular evils of Digital First — and because he knows that I’m the former editor of a regional newspaper myself (the Buffalo News, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company).

My immediate impulse, of course, was to strongly urge him to stick with the paper (or convert to its digital version) if only to support the local journalists who still work there.

But to help answer his question, I talked with Neil Chase, a well-respected newsman who was until recently the editor of the Mercury News and now heads the nonprofit news organization CalMatters.

Chase gets it: “The quality goes down and the price goes through the roof — it’s insane.”

But, he says, it’s still the case that close to 80 percent of one’s subscription dollars are going to pay for the journalism and the production of the paper, not into the owner’s coffers.

And reporters — though fewer — are still on the job: “You’re supporting probably the only people who are watching city hall, overseeing the spending of your tax dollars, covering education.”

In recent months, he noted, the Mercury News and its sister paper, the East Bay Times, have followed up aggressively on reporting that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for “relentless coverage of the Ghost Ship fire, which killed 36 people at a warehouse party, and for reporting after the tragedy that exposed the city’s failure to take actions that might have prevented it.”

The more recent reporting, Chase said, has probed problems in the local fire department’s inspections. Separately, the papers have investigated, and editorialized about, the startling number of “near misses” — what could have been deadly crash landings — at the San Francisco International Airport.

That’s important accountability work — the kind that takes time and money, and is ever harder to do with fewer people in the newsroom.

One day last week, I tried to catch up with a Merc reporter. He was scrambling to cover a major breaking news event — by himself — into the evening. I missed his brief window before he had to meet with a source into the evening hours.

Reporters at these shrunken newspapers are hustling to get the job done. And though management throughout the land may claim otherwise, there is no such thing as “doing more with less.”

These journalists — as well as those at the Denver Post, the Buffalo News, and at Gannett papers like the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, and hundreds of others — deserve our patronage.

So, Mr. Miller, hang in there if you can.

You’re certainly not wrong to question what’s happened, to be troubled by the corporate decision-making, and to miss your more robust newspaper of old.

But there is value here still. And there are working journalists — skilled, experienced, dedicated reporters, editors, photographers — who are doing their best, in tough times, to serve you, while a beleaguered news industry tries to find a path to a sustainable future.

Please support them.

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