The term “ghosting” refers to “abruptly cutting off contact with someone without giving that person any warning or explanation for doing so.” In recent years, America’s newspaper industry has experienced a dramatic decline, yet roughly three quarters of Americans aren’t aware of this and believe newspapers are still in good shape. Effectively, our newspaper industry has been “ghosted.” In “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan explains how this happened.
Historically, newspapers have been part of American culture and the primary source of news for Americans. Newspapers have helped to keep Americans aware and engaged and have worked to keep American democracy functional. As Sullivan writes, “Where news breaks down, so does citizenship.” The demise of American newspapers over the past two decades has helped to put American democracy under threat.
How did this demise happen? Two words: the internet. The rise of the internet resulted in an explosion of news sources, both real and fake. Historically, newspapers were quite profitable, making most of their revenue through print advertising and circulation. The internet decimated those revenue sources. Google and Facebook give advertisers low prices and targeted audiences. Online shopping also dismantled newspaper advertising. Websites like Craigslist killed newspapers’ classified ads.
Newspapers scrambled and tried to adapt, but most have failed in these efforts. Digital news never recovered this lost revenue.
How significant has this decline been? Sullivan provides a litany of eye-popping statistics. “From 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers.” Since then, the pace has only quickened. Newspapers have taken steps trying to survive, cutting “45 percent of their newsroom staffs between 2008 and 2017.” These staff cuts hit hard on investigative reporting and other elements of the news that took time to report and have led to a decline in the quality and content of papers.
The decline has been accelerated by hedge funds buying up newspapers, then effectively gutting them for quick profits, destroying the workforce and the quality of reporting. Hedge funds call this their “harvesting strategy.” Organizations including Alden Golden, Digital First Media and Citadel “have purchased more than 1,500 small city dailies and weeklies.” Once the hedge fund owns the newspaper, it does its best to squeeze out all the value it can. After being gutted, the newspapers are effectively “ghost newspapers — phantoms of what they once were, and not much good to the communities they purport to serve.” Sullivan reports that Alden Golden is the worst actor in this area.
Is this really a big deal? Sullivan writes extensively on the value of local reporting, providing data to quantify the impact of the decline of newspapers. For example, local newspapers have been the key monitor of power in communities. The reporters and staff work to keep town officials on the straight and narrow, and the papers inform citizens on how their money is being spent. Sullivan writes that, “as local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked.”
Without local reporting, municipal borrowing costs go up, while government efficiency goes down. Both government wages and deficits increase. For big issues such as climate change, it’s hard to convince the public that they ought to care without local reporting. Less local reporting leads to lower voter turnout and a decline in people willing to run for office. Voters become more polarized. People rely more on national sources of news and are “more likely to retreat into tribal corners, voting along strict party lines,” resulting in further polarization of American society.
Sullivan explains how this trend is not isolated to America. Similar consolidation and elimination of local news is happening throughout the world, including in Italy, Brazil, Australia, Portugal and Canada. The rise of far-right governments has led to attacks on the free press. Throughout America and the world, many communities have become news deserts. Sullivan states that we are in “continual decline with no end in sight.”
Sullivan also reports on some bright spots. There has been growth in public radio, as well as some success with digital startups. Mobilizers such as ProPublica have provided local newsrooms with no-cost support and staff. Volunteers have organized when local papers went bust. A few news outlets have been able to get better at targeting audiences with advertising and can now compete with Facebook and Google. There have been multiple fundraising events to support local journalism and grant funding from family foundations. Billionaires have been buying news outlets and providing “massive infusions of capital.”
But even with these efforts, Sullivan concludes, “there is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.” Sullivan believes that the decline of local news will accelerate. The worst impacts will be in rural areas. As a result, polarization in America will worsen, as will corruption in business and government. “The glue that holds communities together will weaken.” Other news sources are not coming close to replacing local newspapers. “Newspapers produce more local reporting than television, radio, and online-only outlets combined.”
Following the pattern of many authors, Sullivan ends by stating she remains hopeful, emphasizing that “those who care about good journalism have to do whatever is possible to make things better.” These efforts need to increase — dramatically. “We must support existing news organizations and keep them operating as long as possible” and work to successfully bring newspapers into this digital age. Sadly, “the house is very much ablaze.”
According to a June 2022 Reuters Institute study, over 40 percent of Americans actively avoid the news due to lack of trust. Having your longtime local newspaper gutted or shut down can’t help. If democracy is to survive in America, thriving local newspapers are required. Hopefully enough Americans will recognize this and help to bring back this American tradition.
Read more of the Aug. 10-16, 2022 issue.