When I was working on my undergraduate degree in history, I was mindful of the old adage, “News is the first draft of history.” It shaped my approach to writing my student papers. I tried to use primary source material as much as possible and consult the writings of local journalists who reported on the events in question “on the ground.” Local news sources have importance to students of political history. Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s declaration that “All politics is local” is even more relevant today.
In my job as a reference librarian, I am often asked to “search regional papers,” meaning that the requestor would like to see results from newspapers in smaller cities and rural communities where the issues of interest occurred, presumably because those outlets offer more firsthand accounts and interviews with everyone, from the major players to the folks on the street.
As a result, I was completely startled when I read The New York Times ’ Jan. 19, 2020, headline, “Will The Chicago Tribune Be the Next Newspaper Picked to the Bone?” (David Jackson and Gary Marx; nytimes.com/2020/01/19/opinion/chicago-tribune-alden-capital.html). I knew that the death knell for local newspapers has been sounding for quite a while, but The Chicago Tribune? As the leading daily in America’s third most populous city, I found it hard to believe that “the World’s Greatest Newspaper” could be on the chopping block.
HEDGE FUND INFLUENCE ON LOCAL NEWSPAPERS
It turns out that in November 2019, a hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, became the largest stockholder in the Tribune Publishing Co. when it purchased 32% of its shares. This led to concerns that Alden would follow its pattern of acquiring newspapers and then instituting rounds of layoffs that result in skeleton newsroom staffs. For example, after buying The San Jose Mercury News and other Northern California Bay-area papers, Alden, through its Digital First Media arm, cut the editorial staff at 16 regional newspapers from 1,000 to 150. After purchasing The Orange County Register in 2016, the four remaining reporters were tasked with covering 34 cities, this according to a Feb. 5, 2020, story in Vanity Fair by Joe Pompeo (“The Hedge Fund Vampire That Bleeds Newspapers Dry Now Has The Chicago Tribune By the Throat”; vanityfair.com/news/2020/02/hedge-fund-vampire-alden-global-capital-that-bleeds-newspapers-dry-has-chicago-tribune-by-the-throat).
When The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News became Digital First publications in 2018, the newsroom staff was decreased to 70 positions, down from 600, as reported by Margaret Sullivan in The Washing ton Post on March 15, 2018 (“Is This Strip-Mining or Journalism? ‘Sobs, Gasps, Expletives’ Over Latest Denver Post Layoffs”; tinyurl.com/ycr9obwd).
Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Media and Journalism decided to study the exact penetration of news deserts in the United States. Their resulting report, “The Expanding News Desert” (cislm.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-Expanding-News-Desert-10_14-Web.pdf), found that between 2004 and 2018:
- 1,800 U.S. local and community newspapers went out of business.
- 20% of Americans lost all local news coverage.
- The largest 25 newspaper chains became owners of one-third of all newspapers.
- Less than 12 cities in the United States had two competing dailies.
- 600 standalone newspapers became advertising supplements, free distribution shoppers, or lifestyle publications.
Duke University also undertook a study of local news in which researchers analyzed 16,000 stories from 100 communities in 1 week, gathering news from either local newspapers, local radio stations, local television stations, or online-only news sources. The report, “Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News” (dewitt.sanford.duke.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Assessing-Local-Journalism_100-Communities.pdf), relayed these findings:
- Only 17% of news stories were about the community where they were presented.
- Less than half of the stories were original from local news outlets.
Hedge fund purchases of newspapers such as those by Alden’s Digital Media tell only one part of the story of “newspaper ghosting.” Print journalists’ union NewsGuild defines ghost newspapers as “pared-down-to-nothing papers (or even single-page inserts) that are the remnants of once-robust local publications” (Julie Reynolds, “The ‘Ghost Newspapers’ Are Here” newsguild.org/the-ghost-newspapers-are-here). The UNC researchers describe two ways in which newspapers become ghosts after being purchased by either a larger paper or other owner: Either the larger newspaper folds local news into a larger section, eventually turning it in to an advertising supplement or free-distribution shopper, or the new owner cuts the newsroom staff so drastically that they no longer have enough reporters to cover local news.
CONSEQUENCES OF ONE-SIDED LOCAL NEWS
In addition to the obvious loss of community information and connections, a dearth of local news coverage can lead to dire consequences. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Lyndsey Gilpin illustrates this point by discussing a proposal to build a 600-mile, natural gas pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina—states with multiple counties that have only one weekly newspaper or, in some counties, none at all. The result was that some of the most-affected counties, which represent some of the most rural and economically depressed areas in the U.S. and have been historically reliant on fossil fuels, lacked “consistent, informative local coverage of energy, justice, and the environment” (“A Pipeline Runs Through Southern News Deserts,” Feb. 21, 2020; cjr.org/covering_climate_now/atlantic-coast-pipeline-news-deserts.php).
Therefore, the natural gas industry and its major players shaped the narrative through press releases that touted job creation and downplayed environmental impacts. Ultimately, a push-pull situation ensued: Reporters for small digital outlets were forced to rely on pipeline-builder project plans (obviously slanted toward the project), while at the same time trying to refute the reporting in publications such as the Robesonian . As Robeson County, N.C.’s primary news source, The Robesonian has a conservative and re-business stance and published several stories and op-ed pieces in support of the pipeline.
The obvious question for residents of these communities is this: Where can they go to get reliable, unbiased information regarding the building of this pipeline? The answer: Do it yourself. When CJR reporter Gilpin traveled the pipeline route to speak to residents about the project, “nearly every person interviewed brought a binder they had filled with environmental assessment pages, public records, news clippings, notes from public hearings, emails, and letters … and other documentation.”
We’ve all heard about the benefits of citizen-scientists, who usually take on this voluntary role as a hobby. For citizen-journalists living along this pipeline route, reporting and researching is not a hobby, but a matter of life or death. Gilpin cites Northhampton, N.C., community organizer Belinda Joyner, who believes that most residents get their news “from word of mouth or Facebook,” making it difficult for her to work as an activist. Joyner stated, “When you’re not aware of things going on in your community, then you have no way of defending your community. A lot of things can be done when people aren’t aware of what’s going on around them.”