In 2018, those who follow the fortunes of journalism in America probably heard a name — and, separately, a terrible nickname — for the first time.
The name is Patrick Soon-Shiong, a South African-born surgeon and philanthropist. Once described as the richest doctor in history, the billionaire bought the Los Angeles Times in June, providing a rare jolt of joy in the troubled world of local and regional journalism.
Historically one of the nation’s best and most storied newspapers, the Times has been besieged in recent years by owners and managers who would make a plague of locusts look like a litter of labradoodles.
Now, the Times is on the upswing — hiring robustly and, under veteran editor Norman Pearlstine, getting its mojo back. Whether this suggests anything positive for beleaguered regional journalism overall is a trickier question, but some see reason for optimism.
“2018 has been a decisive turning point for local news,” said Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit organization focused on creating sustainable business models for local news; it is the parent company of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The terrible nickname that emerged this year is “Mr. Bone Saw,” the moniker applied to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the October killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. There’s good reason to believe this brazen brutality happened at the crown prince ’s direction.
Both of these events — the positive and the tragic — take place in a larger, mostly troubling, context for journalists and news organizations in America and the world.
The Los Angeles Times revival is especially noteworthy because of regional journalism’s deep structural troubles.
“Local news has borne the brunt of the crashing journalism ecosystem, with still high levels of trust from readers but little trickle-down of subscription dollars,” Christine Schmidt wrote in Nieman Lab, noting that huge amounts of ad revenue have been diverted for years to Facebook and Google.
Still, in 2018, local journalism may have found a tenuous toehold amid the continuing avalanche.
Rich owners aside (The Washington Post, of course, is owned by Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos), there are some encouraging signs.
Foundations, philanthropists and influential news organizations are taking action.
A few examples: the Knight Foundation — which Friedlich calls “America’s most generous news foundation” — and the Lenfest Institute are putting $20 million toward shoring up local news. ProPublica, the highly respected investigative-news site, is branching out to offer its expertise and funding to support meaningful local investigations. John Thornton, who founded the Texas Tribune, is the force behind the American Journalism Project, which is raising millions to support nonprofit community news organizations. (The idea, in a nutshell, is to clone the Texas Tribune’s success in many communities.)
“While legacy news operations and newspaper chains still face fierce head winds,” Friedlich told me, “there is reason for optimism that a new form of local news industry collaboration has begun to take shape.”
That’s happening, he said, at “the intersection of community, philanthropy, new business models and software technology.” (Google has made a $300 million commitment in the form of its Google News Initiative, mostly oriented toward local news.)
That may not mean much immediately to journalists — or laid-off employees — at places such as the Denver Post or the San Jose Mercury News, whose newsrooms are a tiny fraction of what they were in their heyday two decades ago — and which have suffered at the hands of craven hedge-fund owners such as Alden Global Capital.
As for the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s death, it is a tragedy in its own right but also points to what a dangerous pursuit journalism has become.
The number of journalists targeted for murder because of their reporting nearly doubled in 2018 from a year earlier, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As of mid-December, 53 journalists had been killed for doing their work, with “reprisal killings” twice what they were the previous year — from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to the United States, where five employees of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis were shot and killed in June.
And many more journalists are imprisoned around the world or persecuted in other insidious ways.
Whether in American cities and towns or in the far-flung regions of the world, good journalism makes a huge difference — holding powerful people and institutions accountable, and allowing citizens to make informed choices.
It is, simply, essential.
And so we celebrate the progress, deeply mourn the losses — and hope for a better year ahead.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan