Goodbye to the Hometown Paper

Over her long career as a journalist, Margaret Sullivan has watched the decline of local news with growing alarm
(Dana Ledl for The Washington Post)

In the summer of 2019, with a certain amount of trepidation, I attended a party at the Buffalo News, the daily newspaper serving my hometown of Buffalo and the surrounding region. It would be the first time I’d been back in the building since I’d stepped down as editor in 2012 to become the public editor of the New York Times. When I arrived, I found a festive scene. Cocktails and oysters were being served on a balcony overlooking the Lake Erie harbor and the new construction at the city’s Canalside development, which houses shops, restaurants and, in winter, a skating rink near the arena where the Buffalo Sabres play their National Hockey League games.

Buffalo, once the eighth-largest city in the United States, fell on hard times when its steel and auto plants hit the skids in the 1980s. But in recent years, it has bounced back economically and has become an unlikely darling of tourism roundups of coolest cities to visit. It landed on a list of “best places for millennials to settle,” and my son, a young public defender, heard the call. He lives in a rehabbed industrial building downtown, where the high ceilings and low rents are the envy of his coastal friends.

Buffalo’s comeback, however, is not the News’s. The celebratory atmosphere I encountered at that summer party masked a far grimmer reality inside the building, where, as I’d feared, the changes were breathtaking. Home to a thousand employees not so long ago, the company now employed fewer than half that. Chatting with my former colleagues on the executive committee and others in the know, I heard nothing encouraging. These conversations left me with the depressing sense that the paper, even if it endured, would be vastly changed over the next five years. Its staff would probably continue to shrink, and it might eventually publish a print edition on Sundays only, if at all.

It was tough to hear, but it resonated with everything I knew from covering the national media scene for The Washington Post. Still, this was personal. This was where I had grown up, written thousands of stories, met and married another reporter when we were in our 20s, won writing awards, hired scores of journalists and even hopped in an ambulance when a pregnant reporter went into labor.

In short, this was my world. And it was suffering. For several weeks in every recent summer, I’ve moved back to the Buffalo area and worked from a family cottage, always arranging immediately for home delivery of the paper. It would land on my front deck in its orange plastic bag by 6 most mornings. The idea hit me hard that perhaps next summer — or the following one — that would no longer be possible.

The newsroom at the Buffalo News in 2012. Home to a thousand employees not so long ago, the company had fewer than half that in 2019. As the staff has shrunk over the years, the newspaper has had to make some tough decisions about coverage. (Brendan Bannon)

Bad as the news about the News was, it’s in a better situation than many other local papers. Between 2008 and 2017, American newspapers cut 45 percent of their newsroom staffs; even deeper cutbacks came in the years after that. Some of the most trusted sources of news are slipping away, never to return. The consequences may not always be obvious, but they are insidious. As a major PEN America study concluded in 2019: “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.” Democracy weakens, in other words, and loses its foundations.

The tight connection between local news and good citizenship became abundantly clear in 2018 for Nate McMurray, the Democratic candidate for Congress in a heavily Republican district in western New York. Although the supervisor of the town of Grand Island was battling a party enrollment skewed against him, he had one monumental advantage: His Republican opponent, incumbent Rep. Chris Collins, had just been indicted on insider trading charges. The Buffalo News’s Washington correspondent, Jerry Zremski, had broken the story, and the paper had followed developments diligently for months. Many who would likely have voted for the incumbent crossed the aisle to vote blue. But that wasn’t always the case in the farther-flung parts of the sprawling congressional district that were less served by strong local news.

The problem, as McMurray saw it, was that voters in those parts were shockingly uninformed. “I’d be going door-to-door, or meeting with people at a diner or a fair, for example, and in the most isolated areas, a lot of people had no idea that their own congressman had been indicted,” McMurray told me. One of the toughest places, he said, was Orleans County, which University of North Carolina journalism professor Penny Muse Abernathy identifies as a “news desert” — i.e., a place with little or no local news.

Worthy local reporting requires time, expertise, talent and institutional knowledge. At the Buffalo News, we had less of those every month, and the readers knew it. The same has happened across the larger landscape of local news.

“The lack of real journalism in a lot of the more remote parts of the district meant that people were relying on gossip, conservative radio or social media,” McMurray said. “People were really deep into their echo chambers, or they just didn’t care.” Collins, meanwhile, took full advantage of the decline of credible news sources. He sent fundraising emails to constituents blasting what he called “fake news” about his misdeeds and relied heavily on TV ads to get the message out about his supposed effectiveness in Congress. McMurray ended up losing the 2018 election by a whisker — less than half a percentage point. As for Collins, in 2019 he pleaded guilty to two felonies, resigned from Congress and was sentenced to prison. Some of his former constituents may be unaware of that, too.

Astonishingly, many Americans don’t know about what’s happening to local news, or choose not to believe it. In fact, a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that most — almost three of every four respondents — believe that local news outlets are in good financial shape. And fewer than one in six actually pay for local news.

How we got to this alarming point was something I witnessed firsthand in my time at the Buffalo News, where I started as a summer intern in 1980. As I prepared to emerge from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with my newly minted master’s degree that year, I was lucky enough to have internship offers at both my hometown papers, the morning Buffalo Courier-Express and the Buffalo Evening News. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I put the question to my father, a Buffalo defense attorney. I remember his words: “The News is the dominant paper.”

Dominant sounded good. I took the News internship, and when September came, I was offered a full-time reporting job on the business desk. I thought I would stick around Buffalo for a couple of years and move on — perhaps to the Boston Globe or the Chicago Tribune — but that never happened. I stayed, moving up the ranks and doing nearly every job in the newsroom. I got married, bought a house, had two children and eventually, in 1999, became the paper’s first female top editor. I would hold that job for nearly 13 years.

The paper, like many other regional dailies of that era, was stable and financially solid for most of that period. Before my arrival, the News had been bought by financier Warren Buffett and became part of his Berkshire Hathaway empire. But Buffett knew that the Buffalo market could support only one daily; cities all over the country were seeing the shuttering of the second or third paper in town as reader habits and advertiser practices changed. So Buffett, through his appointed publisher, Stanford Lipsey, and then-editor Murray Light, set about making sure that the winner in Buffalo would be the News. Lipsey and Light competed fiercely for further market domination, starting a Sunday edition to go head-to-head with the Courier. And they won the newspaper war in Buffalo. In 1982, the Courier-Express published its last edition. The News dropped “Evening” from its nameplate, began a morning edition and became exactly what Buffett wanted it to be, from a business perspective: the only game in town.

The News hired some of the best talent from the Courier, including political cartoonist Tom Toles, who would win the News its third Pulitzer Prize. With bureaus all around the western end of the state and a strong presence in Albany and Washington, the News was a solid and well-respected newspaper. At its peak, in the early 1990s, Sunday circulation was about 350,000, and the paper boasted the highest market penetration of any regional paper in the United States.

And for years, it had what seemed like a license to print money. Like other monopoly newspapers, it enjoyed profit margins in the ‘80s and early ‘90s that were well above 30 percent. But it kept a relatively lean staff, something I tried to change when I became editor. I didn’t get very far in terms of increasing the numbers, but I was successful in another goal: to diversify the staff, which was far too white for a city like Buffalo. I aggressively hired people of color; promoted an editorial writer, Rod Watson, to be the first black editor in newsroom management; and made Dawn Bracely the first black woman on the editorial board. I started the paper’s first investigative team and focused the journalism on inequality in the public schools and poverty in the city, where more than two of every five children lived below the poverty line. I tangled with Mayor Byron Brown over access to government information, and he wasn’t sorry to see me leave town when the time came. Our watchdog reporting was aggressive, and we got sued from time to time, but we never lost or even settled a case.

Buffalo News workers John Sordetto, Anthony Meeks and Chuck McFayden prepare a delivery run in 2012.
The printing presses at the Buffalo News.
The Buffalo News building in downtown Buffalo.
TOP: Buffalo News workers John Sordetto, Anthony Meeks and Chuck McFayden prepare a delivery run in 2012. BOTTOM LEFT: The printing presses at the Buffalo News. BOTTOM RIGHT: The Buffalo News building in downtown Buffalo.

Then came 2008. It was a terrible year for newspapers, followed by many more terrible years in a row. The country’s financial crisis and the recession that followed meant bad things for the industry. Print advertising, our lifeblood and largest revenue source, dried up. Circulation, the second-greatest source of revenue, fell. And there was no workable strategy for the digital future. When the Internet came along, years before the recession, to change the news media forever, newspaper management nationwide moved far too slowly and made one tactical error after another. In Buffalo, our rarely updated website was free, and digital advertising didn’t begin to make up for the loss of print ads. As it turned out, despite great — if misguided — hope, it never would.

I remember sitting in endless meetings with other members of the executive committee. I kept trying to make the case that cutting the newsroom staff was the wrong way to save money. But to some, cutting jobs seemed like the most effective way to stay in the black. Layoffs would have meant losing the most recent hires. Instead, we began rounds of voluntary buyouts, offering some of the most valuable and experienced staffers money to go away. By the time I left in 2012, the newsroom staff was below 150.

But the smaller staff meant that we had to make some tough decisions about coverage. No longer would we have one reporter for suburban schools and one for the city schools. No longer would we have satellite bureaus in the most populous suburbs, where citizens could walk in with a tip or a complaint. The Washington bureau, which for years had two full-time reporters, a year-round intern and an oversized office in the National Press Building, was eventually pared down to one reporter who worked from his home. Our Sunday magazine was reduced to a monthly, and then put out of business altogether, a particularly wrenching decision because my then-husband was the magazine editor. We cut way back on assignments that required travel. We thought these measures amounted to austerity at the time, and in comparison to a decade earlier, they seemed drastic. But things would get far worse.

Amid the pandemic in the United States and elsewhere, new rounds of layoffs or pay cuts have devastated the very local newsrooms that are making themselves more vital than ever to their readers by covering the public health emergency.

After I departed, the entire copy desk would be dismantled, a move that many newspapers were making to streamline their skinnier operations. (Even after the recession eased, advertising and circulation revenue never bounced back; reader habits, and advertisers’ ways of reaching consumers, had changed irrevocably.) And the arts coverage, so important to Buffalo’s rich cultural life, withered away. There were no more staff-written movie or book reviews, no more daily Life & Arts section. The paper’s role as the center of the city’s cultural life was fading. Yet 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 of place.

Worthy local reporting requires time, expertise, talent and institutional knowledge. We had less of those every month, and the readers knew it. Perhaps paradoxically, I was immensely proud of the work we did and the overall quality of the paper. I felt that way until my last day on the job in August 2012, and I remain proud to be associated with the paper, which has continued to do vital work. The day I left the Buffalo News, I sat on the bare desk in my cleared-out office, and staff photographer Harry Scull came in to shoot a final portrait before we walked over to my farewell party on the fantail of the USS Little Rock, docked in Buffalo harbor. It was 32 years after I’d walked through the door as an ambitious summer intern, and everything — everything — had changed.

The same has happened across the larger landscape of local news. And the situation is quickly and constantly deteriorating. Huge media chains are merging, more newspapers are going out of business, digital sites are being abruptly axed, journalists continue to be laid off. When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, the immediate economic impact on news organizations could be felt worldwide. Advertising has almost disappeared. In the United States and elsewhere, new rounds of layoffs or pay cuts have devastated the very local newsrooms that are making themselves more vital than ever to their readers by covering the public health emergency.

But even before this disaster happened, the harsh consequences have been playing out in communities. Meetings of public officials are taking place without coverage. Agency budgets and municipal contracts are going forward without scrutiny. Apparently, only a small percentage of the public sees the need to open its wallets for local newspapers or other local news sources, and as newspapers decline in staff and quality, they see even less reason to do so. Overcoming this vicious cycle is a steep climb. And we have very little time to crest the hill.

Margaret Sullivan is the Washington Post media columnist. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” to be published July 14.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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