Yesterday’s bombshell report from the Atlantic about the horrifying state of the American newspaper industry is only the latest in a steady torrent of bad news that’s lasted more than a decade. It’s been an era of inexorable decline, and its impact on democracy itself is catastrophic.
As the Atlantic report stated:
“When a local newspaper vanishes, research shows, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagement. Misinformation proliferates. City budgets balloon, along with corruption and dysfunction. The consequences can influence national politics as well; an analysis by Politico found that Donald Trump performed best during the 2016 election in places with limited access to local news.”
The article itemized the same depressing examples we hear again and again. Gutted newsrooms unable to perform their most basic functions, like covering the police beat. Or investigating allegations of corruption. Or staffing the statehouse. And much more. The few reporters who remain — newsroom employment declined by half between 2008 and 2018 — are tired, beleaguered, overworked, underpaid and frequently embittered.
Broadly, we all know the reasons. As the Atlantic said, “Craigslist killed the Classified section, Google and Facebook swallowed up the ad market, and a procession of hapless newspaper owners failed to adapt to the digital-media age, making obsolescence inevitable.”
Vulture capitalists like Alden Capital, the hedge fund that acquired the Tribune Company and owns more than 200 other newspapers in the U.S., strip mine newspaper companies for profits and care little — or nothing — about the role of journalism.
How bad is the decline? By almost any measurement, the story is bleak. Combined print and digital circulation was 28.6 million in 2018, the most recent year where data was available, representing the lowest circulation level in 80 years. Ad revenue declined by 62% between 2008 and 2018. And layoffs, exacerbated by the global pandemic, continue to hammer the industry.
Even worse is the emergence of “news deserts,” and “ghost newspapers” — shells of their former selves. Over the last 16 years, 2,100 newspapers have disappeared, leaving 1,800 communities with no local journalism at all, according to the University of North Carolina research. Since 2018, according to UNC, 300 newspapers closed, another 6,000 journalists employed by newspapers vanished, and print newspaper circulation declined by 5 million.
The faint hope for a reprieve is for people like Stewart Bainum Jr., chairman of Choice Hotels International, who told the Atlantic that he’s starting a new, nonprofit, digital-only publication called the Baltimore Banner that will have an annual operating budget of $15 million and a staff of 50 journalists.
It would compete with the Baltimore Sun, now owned by Alden. It has the aim of building the largest newsroom in Maryland, with a staff of more than 100 reporters, the newspaper consultant Imtiaz Patel, who is advising Bainum, to ld the New York Times on Thursday.
Bainum and others who are experimenting with the business model, such as Pro Publica, the Connecticut Mirror, the Texas Tribune, the Daily Memphian, or The City in New York, may represent the future.
Then there are the billionaires, looking to leverage their wealth and community stature into media ownership, as Jeff Bezos did in 2013 with TheWashington Post, Red Sox owner John Henry did the same year with TheBoston Globe, Sheldon Adelson did in 2015 with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Patrick Soon-Shiong did in 2018 with the Los Angeles Times.
In the end, the future of newspapers might be a choice between three divergent business models: Billionaire ownership, non-profit ownership, or financial owners.