A Cost/Benefit Analysis

Freedom of the press isn’t just implied in the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause, although that clause clearly extends to the media. According to historians, the country’s founders wanted to explicitly protect press information-gathering, because democratic processes depend on an informed electorate.

That understanding–that constitutional principle–is what makes a police raid on a Kansas newspaper so appalling. (When a reader first alerted me to this, I was certain there had to be more to the story–that the initial reports must have been wrong. I was the one who was wrong.)

As NPR has reported:

The small-town Kansas newspaper raided by police officers on Friday had been looking into allegations of misconduct against the local chief just months ago, according to the paper’s publisher, raising further concerns about the law enforcement officers’ motives.

The Marion, Kansas police department confiscated computers, cell phones and a range of other reporting materials from the office of the Marion County Record — the sole local paper in a small city of about 2,000 residents. Officers spent hours in the newsroom. It also seized material from one of its journalist’s homes. Eric Meyer, the publisher and co-owner of the newspaper, said his 98-year-old mother passed away the day after police raided her house, where Meyer was staying at the time. He said he believes the stress from the raid contributed to her death.

The background to the raid is particularly telling: the Record had conducted “routine background checks” just before police chief Gideon Cody took office. That “routine check” was evidently informed by anonymous tips the paper received after it ran a story about his candidacy for the police chief position.

Cody was sworn in as Chief in June, after retiring from the Kansas City Police Department in late April. Meyer was quoted as saying that “It was alarming, to say the least, the number of people who came forward, and some of the allegations they made were fairly serious. We were simply looking into the question.”

When a reporter asked Cody to comment on the allegations, Cody threatened to sue the paper, and the department stopped providing routine information to the newspaper. And then,

County magistrate judge Laura Viar signed a search warrant on Friday morning, authorizing the Marion police department to raid the Record. The warrant cites suspected “identity theft” of a local restaurant owner as the reason for the raid.

On Friday, just after the raid, the Record requested access to the probable cause affidavit — the document that would outline why the judge saw reason to authorize the raid — from the Marion County District Court.

But the court’s written response, reviewed by NPR, indicates that document may not exist.

There’s more, and it will undoubtedly all come out as other media outlets investigate the threat posed to press freedom by this episode. But what is especially troubling is that this bit of official thuggery comes at a time when local newspapers are disappearing. 

As an article in the Atlantic noted, local newspapers don’t just serve democracy–they also save tax dollars. The article cited a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, revealing that San Juan County, Utah, had paid a single law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees. The story also reported that the firm had overcharged the county, the poorest in the state, by $109,500. Embarrassed, the firm paid the money back.

That one story retrieved for taxpayers a sum that was triple the reporter’s annual salary. As the author of the article noted, funding local news would more than pay for itself.

In addition to providing citizens with the information needed to make democracy work, in addition to the tax dollars saved when government is under the eye of media watchdogs, local newspaper reports feed community , especially in rural areas. A recent article from the Washington Post focused on that function.

At a time when hooligans have hijacked the national discourse with disinformation and paranoia, the Rappahannock News operates in a calmer place where the slow rhythms of rural life are newsworthy — and where, regardless of political views, its readers are unified by a powerful sense of community… 

Similar newspapers once bound together communities everywhere. A century ago, The Post, too, carried items on the humdrum comings and goings of local residents. Though the news became impersonal in big cities, community papers continued to be at the core of rural and small-town America.“

As a Local News Initiative official puts it, local news organizations are the glue that hold the community together. When there’s a void of local news, people revert to the blue and red echo chambers and national news sources that confirm their own belief sets, and it aggravates partisanship.”

That Kansas sheriff obviously doesn’t care.


Good News For A Change

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly convinced that the death of traditional newspapers is at the root of much–if not most–of America’s polarization and anger. It isn’t just the dearth of local news, damaging as that is. The deeper problem is fragmentation.

As I used to tell students in my Media and Public Policy classes, “back in the day,” when large majorities of city residents got their news from the same newspapers (and from the local television newscasts that largely got theirs from local newspaper reporters), they occupied a similar civic reality.Even if they bought the paper for the grocery coupons or the sports scores, and merely glanced at the headlines, they shared a common information environment.

That shared environment is the loss that has most deeply cut into local civic cohesion and civic participation. So–although I have cheered the recent entry of new local media sources–I realize that those new resources don’t solve the fragmentation problem, even assuming that people who don’t currently get much local news learn about and access them. (I do worry that the availability of these resources won’t penetrate the consciousness of those who don’t share the nerdy preoccupations of people like me.)

All this is by way of explaining why I was thrilled to read the following:

A nonprofit group dedicated to rescuing local newspapers from either collapse or private equity pillaging is buying 22 local papers in Maine. The National Trust for Local News, founded just two years ago, will purchase five of the state’s six dailies and 17 weeklies from a private company called Masthead Maine owned by Reade Brower, who made his money in direct mail. (How one guy managed to get control of all the important newspapers in a state is a story for another day.)

As we all know, daily newspapers became less profitable with the rise of the Internet. That loss of profitability led private equity operators to swoop in and buy thousands of local newspapers. They saw a way to profit by “paring staff and news coverage to the bone.” Since then, the venerable (and rapacious) Gannett chain was bought by GateHouse, “one of the most predatory of the private equity outfits, which took over the Gannett name.”

The result has been the aptly-named “ghost” newspaper. (The Indianapolis Star is an excellent example.)

Local dailies and weeklies could actually turn a profit with well-staffed newsrooms if owners could be satisfied by returns in the 5 to 10 percent range rather than the 15 to 20 percent that was typical in the pre-internet era and that is demanded by private equity players. Despite the internet, local merchants still rely heavily on display ads, which are profit centers. And well-run local papers attract more display ads.

Since then, there has been a slowly growing movement to save the local press by returning it to community or nonprofit ownership. My friend and co-author Ed Miller has gone on to found an exemplary weekly, The Provincetown Independent, which has thrived at the expense of the GateHouse-owned Provincetown Banner, which has lost most of its staff and circulation. Between 2017 and July 2022, over 135 nonprofit newsrooms were launched, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Another hopeful sign is that even by laying off staff and reducing coverage, private equity companies are not making the money they hoped for, so some of these papers are on the auction block and can be saved. Maine is not a typical case, since Reade Brower is a relatively benign monopolist and was willing to work with the National Trust for Local News.

According to the linked report, the Trust–which does not have a lot of its own money– employs a variety of ownership models and draws funding from a number of sources:

Its first major deal was in Colorado, where it now owns 24 local newspapers in that state in collaboration with The Colorado Sun. It has funders that include the Gates Family Foundation, the Google News Initiative, and the Knight Foundation. The MacArthur Foundation also recently announced a major initiative to save local news.

This is the beginning of a very hopeful trend to save priceless civic assets from predatory capitalism at its worst.

I never understood why those “predatory capitalists” didn’t understand that their approach ensured a death spiral. Newspapers sell a product: content. Did the Gatehouses and Gannetts not understand that consumers would respond to cuts in staffing, reflected in dramatic reductions of useful content, by discontinuing their subscriptions?

We need local news. And we need a shared source of local news. The National Trust for Local News seems to understand that saving local newspapers is the most efficient way to rebuild shared information resources.

That is very good news.


No News Isn’t Good News

When I first retired, I began casting around for projects I might do to occupy my newly-freed-up time. (I’m still looking, btw…) My youngest son wanted me to get credentialed as a reporter and focus my efforts on Indiana’s Statehouse, which he correctly noted is a gerrymandered, far-right mixture of self-dealing, arrogance, bad policy and general nuttiness.

It is, after all, a chamber that hasn’t come all that far since passing a bill to change the value of pi.

There hasn’t been decent reporting on the shenanigans of our legislature since Mary Beth Schneider retired from the Statehouse beat, back when the Indianapolis Star at least pretended to cover state and local government.  But–although I certainly agree with my son that the lack of reporting on state government is a huge problem–I didn’t agree that I was the person to address that information deficit. (My kids don’t seem to understand just how limited my skills are, or how old and tired I am…)

That said, it appears that Indiana’s isn’t the only state legislature to be operating without scrutiny from media watchdogs, and there is a new effort to turn that around. A friend recently sent me a report from the Washington Post about a nonprofit news organization that has been formed to fill that gap.

With funding from foundations and a variety of donors, States Newsroom formed two years ago to attempt to fill a void in what many government watchdogs and civil-society experts believe is one of the biggest manifestations of the local journalism crisis: the dire shortage of reporters covering state government.

On Monday, States Newsroom will announce plans to nearly double its presence, from its current 25 states to about 40 over the next two and a half years. It will open its next five outlets in Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, South Carolina and Kentucky. It’s also launching “News from the States,” a new online clearinghouse to showcase all their affiliates’ reporting.

Each of the bureaus is independent,  and most are managed by veteran journalists. The average staffs consist of four or five reporters. And importantly, each bureau allows other news organizations to republish its work for free.

“State government and politics and policy have the most impact on people’s lives and it’s covered the least,” said States Newsroom director and publisher Chris Fitzsimon. “That’s really why we exist.”

The number of newspaper reporters dedicated to covering statehouses has been declining for decades, dropping by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014 and outpacing overall newspaper job losses over that time, according to Pew Research Center survey. And that was before the more recent blows to the newspaper industry, with nearly 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers vanishing between 2018 and early 2020, according to a University of North Carolina study, even before the pandemic worsened their economic picture.

Can a nonprofit media organization survive financially? That’s the zillion-dollar question.

States Newsroom raised close to $10 million dollars in 2020. In the interests of transparency, it posts a list on its website of every donor who has contributed over $500–according to the article in the Post, the list currently includes individuals, foundations, and other entities like the Google News fund and a major union of public employees. A foundation established by Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, who briefly entertained joining a bid to buy Tribune Publishing Company last year, gave an early $1 million dollar donation.

As the article noted, for many years smaller newspapers relied on wire services like the Associated Press to fill their pages with the kind of statehouse reporting that they didn’t have the personnel to produce themselves. But increasingly, small newspapers can’t afford to subscribe to the AP, and as the newsrooms of better-established papers have been emptied out by their rapacious corporate owners, those news organizations have simply lacked the wherewithal to cover state legislatures.

When I visited the States Newsroom website, I noted the absence of an Indiana operation. Maybe if a number of unhappy Hoosiers contribute, we can convince the project to add Indiana to its growing list of bureaus. After all, what’s our idiotic state motto? “Honest to Goodness, Indiana?”

Well, Honest to Goodness, we need a lot more light on our Indiana lawmakers!


It Isn’t Just Gannett

The consolidation of the country’s newspapers has been a preoccupation of  Americans who recognize the extreme importance of “the press”-who appreciate the outsized role that journalism plays in community and self-government. Large-scale, rapacious companies like Gannett (see yesterday’s post) have been the target of withering criticism for years.

But there’s a difference between corporations like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital.

Gannett and its ilk were convinced that they could operate newspapers more efficiently–that they could do more–or at least as much– with less, and thereby continue to enjoy the high profit margins that the industry used to provide. Quality journalism was secondary–it was just the widget/product that happened to generate the all-important profits. (The fact that the company greatly overpaid for many of the papers it purchased made that optimism unrealistic.) Their first loyalty was–and is– to the bottom line, but they at least give lip service to the importance of journalism.

Hedge funds like Alden never bothered; they’ve simply “strip mined” the newspapers they’ve purchased–intentionally destroying them. As the linked article puts it, these funds are composed of

investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self

The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital. Since they bought their first newspapers a decade ago, no one has been more mercenary or less interested in pretending to care about their publications’ long-term health. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that Alden-owned newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of their competitors; not coincidentally, circulation has fallen faster too, according to Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst who reviewed data from some of the papers. That might sound like a losing formula, but these papers don’t have to become sustainable businesses for Smith and Freeman to make money.

Alden’s aggressive cost-cutting makes Gannett look generous. The hedge fund has found a financially-rewarding formula: it continues to operate the newspapers it acquires at a profit for a few years, but during those years, it turns out a steadily worsening product and alienates subscribers.

This investment strategy does not come without social consequences. 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.

With its acquisition of Tribune Publishing earlier this year, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers, including some of the country’s most famous and influential: the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News. It is the nation’s second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Some in the industry say they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith and Freeman end up becoming the biggest newspaper moguls in U.S. history.

The linked article describes what happens after an acquisition by Alden, telling the stories of specific newspapers, the people who worked at them, and the cities and towns they no longer serve. It also profiles the men who run Alden–men who proudly identify themselves as “vulture capitalists” and who are identified by others as the “grim reapers” of journalism.( At least one of them–unsurprisingly–is a  major supporter of Donald Trump, whose constant attacks on the news alarmed people who understood the importance of journalism to democratic governance.)

I cannot do justice to the Atlantic’s thorough and meticulous reporting in a brief blog post. Everyone reading this should click through and read the well-researched and eye-opening article in its entirety.

The crisis in local journalism has been the subject of concern and debate for well over a decade. We are now at a point where–in the absence of viable replacements for what has been lost–repairing the damage to governance and community will be difficult to impossible to achieve.

I never imagined quoting Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, but without a robust and vigorous press, we won’t know what we don’t know.

If American democracy collapses, Mitch McConnell and the sniveling invertebrates in the  GOP will share responsibility with vulture capitalists like Alden Global Capital.


About That Dead Horse….

America faces a raft of very serious problems. This blog routinely pontificates about them–usually by citing from various media resources that have highlighted them. Over the past several years I have become increasingly convinced that it is the state of that media–especially its fragmented nature–that has exacerbated all of them.

That conviction won’t come as a surprise to longtime readers of this blog–it’s the “dead horse” I’ve been flogging for years.

The Pew Research Center recently issued a report on the current nature of what we like to call traditional media–primarily newspapers and broadcast (radio and television). For the first time, newspapers made more money from individual subscriptions than from advertising. That looks superficially like good news, but is really a reflection of the extent to which the business model that sustained those newspapers over the years has collapsed.

That collapse is why more than 2000 local newspapers have ceased publication during the past decade, and one of the reasons (along with their acquisition by greedy national companies)  why so many of those that remain have been able to maintain only skeletal reporting staffs.

Yes, national papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been able to maintain and even grow  both their reporting staffs and their subscribers, but in the cities and towns where citizens depend upon the press for the incredibly important watchdog function, these “ghost” papers no longer have the capacity to do so.

I’ve ranted about all of this in previous posts–flogging that “dead horse”–and noting the multiple consequences, but I keep coming back to what is, in my view, the most significant problem created by our current media environment: the facilitation of informational silos. Bubbles enable us to confirm our pre-existing biases, and–perhaps even worse– to avoid recognizing what we don’t know.

As I used to tell my students, even newspapers that were never particularly good–the Indianapolis Star comes to mind–served one very important function: they provided the citizens of a community with a common description of their local reality. Even if you only picked up the newspaper to see sports scores, you saw the same headlines your neighbors saw. The local school board was embroiled in a debate. Local crime rates had increased. The city was issuing bonds for a new library, and that might affect your property tax rate.


Today, good luck scanning the Indianapolis Star for education news– reporters will cover school board meetings only when enraged racists descend on board meetings to demand that schools stop teaching something they don’t teach anyway. If you want to know anything else about education policy, you need to go to sources like Chalkbeat, an online media resource covering education.

And that’s the problem.

In various conversations, I’ve asked people if they have ever heard of Chalkbeat–or a few of the other specialized sources that cover discrete areas of our common life. Very few have. We are at a point where the information we need in order to be minimally-informed citizens is “out there,” but only available to those who know enough–and are motivated enough–to search for it.

You may not have children in school, but what the local school board does affects your property values. You may be disinterested in the proceedings of your local department of transportation, but those proceedings will determine the condition of the streets you drive on. You may not care about the financial woes of a local hospital, but if you have a health emergency, those woes will suddenly become relevant.

Etcetera, etcetera.

Look–I’m not one of those people who looks back fondly at a past that never existed. I know that most people, even those who subscribed to local papers, tended to skim over the articles that didn’t interest them. For that matter, a lot of folks didn’t even subscribe–at best, they tuned in to the local TV news at dinnertime to hear brief summaries that the stations had usually gotten from the local newspapers. The point is, they saw the same headlines. They heard the same summaries.

They might argue over the accuracy of the reporting, or what it meant, but they shared a common starting-point.

The absence of local, in-depth news contributes to American polarization by  nationalizing news consumption. Pew found that in 2020,  Fox News’ prime time average audience increased by 61%, CNN’s increased by 72% and MSNBC’s grew by 28%.

Perhaps what we need are local versions of aggregators like the Huffington Post–one-stop “entry points” with short blurbs and links to the specialized sites that are doing credible, professional reporting on particular slices of what should be our common civic concerns.

National news is important–but so is verifiable, credible scrutiny of local governments and civic organizations.