The Unthinkable Path Forward for American Journalism
In theory, being arrested by the FBI and charged with insider trading would be a bad thing to happen to someone running for Congress. Such was the situation upstate New York incumbent Chris Collins found himself in a few months before the 2018 election. And yet Collins, the first representative to endorse Trump, went on to win by 1,087 votes. Such a theory, of course, has a few assumptions baked in. One is that corruption will attract blanket news coverage, something Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan writes was not the case in 2018. The rural corners of Collins’s district fall into what researchers call a “news desert”,news being the water in this metaphor.And in the absence of a trusted local paper, the gears of democracy-in-theory get gunked up by misleading campaign ads and partisan habits. The Democratic challenger lamented to Sullivan that when he’d mention the arrest on the trail, “people told me I was making it up.”
Sullivan relates this story in Ghosting the News, a recent book that provides a tour through our nation’s increasingly decrepit local newspapers. Much of the empirical research motivating Sullivan’s book can be traced to Penelope Muse Abernathy (2017), whose team has mapped the nation’s “news deserts” in a series of depressing reports published by UNC. By Abernathy’s count, the country has lost 2,100 newspapers since 2004. But some things are worse than a paper’s death––vulture funds like Alden Global Capital have gobbled up more and more titles, keeping them open but cutting newsrooms to the bone, selling headquarters, and inflating ad space. In some cases, the editions come to resemble a Food Lion circular.
Sullivan’s slender book adds some color to Abernathy’s research, dropping in on local scenes to give a glimpse of what this mass die-off looks like in newsrooms nearing their end. Writing for Columbia University Press––speaking of struggling industries––Sullivan is a natural choice to tell this story, having had a career that would make her a hero to any Rory Gilmore-types. She was editor of her high school paper, studied at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and returned home where she rose from intern to editor of The Buffalo News, a once thriving regional daily. After three decades at the paper, she was christened in 2012 by The New York Times and named public editor––a type of ombudsman position that has since been scratched. She left the Grey Lady in 2016 after a celebrated run and now writes a media column for The Washington Post. While at the Times, her knowledge of the nitty-gritty of news gathering shone through in substantive critiques of her employer, including its practice of allowing sources to approve quotes after an interview. At the end of her tenure, The Nation commented that she was “a model not only of smart, relentless web-based media reporting and criticism but also how to think about journalism’s role and responsibilities in an era of post-truth politics.”
Sullivan’s current employer, the Post, is doing fine, living off digital subscriptions fielded from across the nation and the largesse of an owner worth nearly $200 billion. The crisis of newspapers is a crisis of local and regional newspapers, outlets that overwhelmingly generate the original reporting local TV stations and websites—if there is anything—re-report. So how bad is it? Consider that since its Y2K peak, print advertising revenue fell by 71 percent in just a dozen years. Such industry-wide trends were palpable when I was a city hall reporter at a small-town daily in Oregon. In 2016, I had been a journalist for three years and loved the job, but when management took our health benefits away without warning, I got the hint. Sizing up my chances, I made the absurd sounding––but I think accurate––call that getting a PhD would be a safer bet, and I’m happy to say my co-pays are now acceptably affordable. The paper, on the other hand, has since declared bankruptcy, though it was sold and continues to publish. When I sent a draft of this article to a journalist friend who also used to work at the paper, she noted the paper offers health insurance again. That may be so, but looking at the masthead, the newsroom looks like it’s been cut in half, at least. Whatever the case may be, if you happen to live in Bend, Oregon, please buy a subscription to The Bulletin.
Sullivan’s book turns up nothing new for anyone who has been paying attention to the newspaper industry. However, the book is a virtue because it turns out very few people have been paying attention. A recent survey by Pew (2019) found that 71 percent of Americans believe their local news outlets are in great shape. The punchline is that the same survey found that only 14 percent had paid for local news. Sullivan’s take on her long-time employer, The Buffalo News, furnishes an accessible lesson in the recent tragic history of newspaper economics. When she left graduate school in 1980, Sullivan had internship offers from both of the city’s papers. The key here is that in 1980 there were two papers in Buffalo. She relates that she chose the internship with the News and not its rival because her dad said, “The News is the dominant paper.”
The News had been bought a few years earlier by Warren Buffett, who was dead set on turning the city into a one-paper town. Oddly enough for a book lamenting the closing of local papers, Sullivan tells this part of the story with a hint of admiration, writing that the News “became exactly what Buffett wanted it to be, from a business perspective: the only game in town. At its peak, Sunday circulation was about 350,000, and the paper boasted the highest market penetration of any regional paper in the United States.” As Sullivan rose to lead the paper, “it had what seemed like a license to print money.” The fall came fast. After 2008, Sullivan describes watching her newsroom shrink, cutting the Sunday magazine (which was edited by her then-husband), and getting stingy with reporting that required travel. She ends her chapter on the industry’s decline by noting that in 2020 Buffett sold all his papers to one of the big chains.
So what happened? In Sullivan’s take, the crisis was precipitated by technology, or what she teases by saying, “something was happening in San Francisco.” As many observers have noted, newspapers were in the business of selling ad space, and that was easy to do when you were the only daily in town and connecting to the Internet sounded like nails being drawn across a chalkboard. But times change, and advertisers can now use the reams of personal data collected by Facebook and Google to show ads targeted to something as specific as the intersection of our (declared) profession, (declared) favorite movies, and (computationally imputed) political ideology (though I keep getting Facebook ads for home loans I’m nowhere close to affording, so go figure). As a result, instead of spending advertising budgets on newspapers, companies now turn to Facebook or Google, which Sullivan tells us to take 60 percent of all digital advertising dollars. When this digital trend crossed with the Great Recession—which forced companies to slash their advertising budgets—local newspapers were “toast,” to quote Buffett.
Sullivan goes through the exercise of pointing to “beacons of hope,” including successful nonprofits like The Texas Tribune and MinnPost, as well as plucky community journalism efforts, where people work without formal training, often doing so for free. There’s also what the Shorenstein Center calls “the Billionaire Local Newspaper Club,” in which a benevolent money bag buys the local paper and turns a blind eye to profit. But there are downsides to these models: nonprofits require donors, which means such an approach is easier for large communities with deep-enough pockets; citizen journalism is likewise more feasible where residents have the time and cultural capital to launch into a watchdog side hustle. For example, the admirable citizen journalist Sullivan features most prominently is a PhD who studies the “epistemology of democracy.” I don’t think every town has someone like that. As for billionaires, Sheldon Adelson is the cautionary tale—it turns out people with a lot of money have a lot of interests to protect. For those worried about Sullivan’s current employer, rest assured: “Jeff Bezos has not attempted to influence coverage at the Washington Post.” It’s not that I think she’s necessarily wrong, but how would she know?
Sullivan devotes about two pages to the radical solution––public journalism supported by government subsidies, something Americans have accepted in a tiny way with NPR but hasn’t meaningfully expanded since. Despite this model’s promise, she quickly moves away, writing that she’s “not sure” about this route, “particularly in a time when the very notion of journalistic truth is under siege from political actors.”
Victor Pickard is sure that subsidies—and more broadly, publicly owned outlets—are a good idea. Pickard, a faculty member at UPenn’s Annenberg School for Communication, is a leading scholar of American journalism. His 2019 book Democracy Without Journalism? offers a clear diagnosis of what ails journalism and argues public media is the cure. Oddly enough, Sullivan lists Pickard’s book among a section on “further reading,” though she never cites it in her endnotes or refers to it in her narrative. While Sullivan blames journalism’s rough straits on the Internet, Pickard says the problem is more fundamental than new technologies. The issue is simply that news outlets sell advertising space to pay for reporting, ensnaring the public good of information in a commercial logic that puts money above journalism. In other words, even before Google, Facebook, and 2008, the drive to maximize returns meant Americans were not getting enough journalism. At its core, Pickard’s book argues that commercial journalism is a contradiction. Through this prism, Buffett’s victory in the Buffalo newspaper wars is reframed as an assault on journalism just as pernicious as any of the newspaper closings Sullivan reports on from our present era. Why can’t Sullivan see that?
Pickard points to an answer through his treatment of the history of ideas about American journalism. His work traces back to Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” While that sounds like a full-throated endorsement of newspapers, it contains the seed of the problem––journalism has been cast as outside the state. Even more, when we think of good reporting, we think of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, moments in which the government was an adversary taken down by heroic reporters.
It is in such a register that thinking about the news has become stuck. Pickard laments that policymakers and journalists fall prey to a framework soaked in “market fundamentalism that renders government incapable of intervening against significant social problems—such as the collapse of the Fourth Estate.” Such an aversion to the state is ahistorical. For one, the Postal Service was started in large measure to fund the delivery of news. According to Pickard, “As much as 70 percent of mail delivered in the 1790s, and 95 percent in the 1830s, consisted of newspapers.” Further, journalism is the only industry to get special protections in the Constitution. Looking globally, plenty of democracies offer public media subsidies, including Norway, Germany, Denmark, and the UK. While the BBC has been hamstrung by right-wing venom, it’s still there doing its job.
Pickard’s case for public media is strong, but the best Sullivan can offer is the comment that “I’m not persuaded that direct government subsidies to news organizations are a good idea but I also don’t want to rule them out.” She’s not alone, as can be seen in the glowing reviews of Ghosting the News offered by other working journalists. A review (Szalai 2020) in The New York Times notes Sullivan’s squeamishness toward subsidies, but then moves on without offering its own take; another (Chan 2020) in the LA Times shares a few proposals that could help the news industry but doesn’t touch on subsidies. Public funding is a line that can’t be crossed by the mainstream press––it seems Sullivan is caught in the mindset Pickard describes, one in which the government is the enemy that gives journalists a reason for being.
This mindset is recreated in the working lives of journalists, and it was something I believed in deeply as I sat through countless government meetings in Oregon’s high desert. When I got the city hall beat, I considered it the most important job at the paper. But I’m now convinced it wasn’t––the city was shaped by the developers who had fueled the city’s growth from a timber town you haven’t heard of to a city you’ll see on a “best places” list. We had business reporters, but they profiled new CEOs and reported on the region’s prospects for further investment. Business news was about understanding, or even, if we’re being honest, celebrating business, but government news was adversarial—hence the appeal for a young reporter.
Where does this difference come from? Pickard details the history of American journalism’s commercial bent, but on the level of journalistic practice, this difference is actively remade because it is cheaper to report on government. Their meetings are open to the public and their internal documents are available for public records requests. Important investigative work about the government is hard, but it can be done, and it doesn’t rely on a Panama Papers-scale leak. Because American journalism has had to sell ad space to survive, its reporting developed under the imperative of seeking profit just as much as the aspiration of seeking truth—but the need for profit alongside truth made it easier to go after some truths. Don’t get me wrong, journalists should cover the state with gusto, but journalists can’t cover business with much meaning because, even in the best of times, the revenue isn’t there to fund investigations into entities under minimal obligation to discuss their internal operations. Over time, this practice has turned into a belief––American journalism is at odds with government and glory goes to the reporter with the bombshell FOIA. It’s a field journalists have a chance of winning on, so it’s the field they focus on. In this way, the logic is remade day in and day out. We see the other side of this in a classic newsroom ethnography of the 1970s by the sociologist Herbert Gans, who wrote that the routines of prestige journalism led journalists to never consider asking “why corporations have so much power.”
I was quite surprised to see Sullivan––who indulges in a few union-skeptical asides––end her book by quoting Gramsci, noting that the thinker “advocated what he called ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.’” Cracking open The Prison Notebooks (1971) and it’s clear her quote of choice is ironic. While Pickard doesn’t center Gramsci’s key concept of hegemony, his book could be read through this lens (for a classic work on journalism that does center hegemony, see the late Todd Gitlin’s The Whole World is Watching). In Gramsci’s take, class domination––capitalist hegemony––is maintained through cultural institutions, so that a worldview is created that accepts domination, perhaps grudgingly. Gramsci’s pessimism is his analysis of what’s wrong, but he had a deep belief that envisioning a better world could help lead to its creation. That’s the optimism, but Sullivan shirks that optimism when she says she’s not convinced about subsidies but offers nothing else. She’s caught in the hegemonic view, one that sees journalism as incompatible with state support, and so she toggles between a range of models that offer variety but no real challenge to the way things are.
Given the state of local journalism Sullivan lays out, what’s the alternative to a public media? What options besides public money don’t just kick the can to oblivion? Gramsci offers some ways to think through opposition to public media. The most important objection is a good one—couldn’t the state abuse the information system? We know hegemony works in large part through the schools, an institution charged with spreading information that happens to be (generally) run by the state. But while American schools are a mess, who besides a DeVos scion would argue privatization or philanthropy is the only answer?
Our local approach to education generates massive inequity, as the quality of schools mirrors the depth of pockets in a given community. But such a jigsaw approach might work for public media. The anti-Critical Race Theory crowd overwhelming school boards gives me some pause, but perhaps embedding news outlets in universities—which are already in the business of generating knowledge and tend to have some degree of autonomy—could be an option. Of course, there are problems––what if the project is embraced unevenly? Wouldn’t that leave certain communities without local news? As Sullivan illustrates, that’s the world we already live in.
Another imperfect plan is making its way through Congress. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would offer taxpayers a rebate on news subscriptions. Giving out benefits through tax breaks has its well-documented issues, most notably that they are most likely to be claimed by those with the time and money to navigate America’s tangled tax code. However, the plan also has breaks aimed directly at news outlets as well as advertisers. Focusing on taxes instead of subsidies is a very American approach—as the political scientist Suzanne Mettler pointed out in her seminal work The Submerged State, such a design is often the only way to pass new programs with Republican support. That may be what’s going on here, at least in the House, where Dan Newhouse, a Washington Republican, is a sponsor. The trick is that by framing a program as a tax cut instead of an expenditure, it fits the worldview of those seeking to minimize the state’s interference in the market—in other words, it slides between the goalposts marking off hegemony. Sullivan, as this framing suggests, has warmed to the proposal. In August 2021 she wrote, “it’s well worth a try.”
Abernathy, Penelope Muse. 2016. “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts.” UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. https://uncpress.org/book/9781469634029/the-rise-of-a-new-media-baron-and-the- emerging-threat-of-news-deserts/.
Chan, Sewell. 2020. “Review: Local journalism is in crisis. Author Margaret Sullivan shows what’s at stake.” Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment- arts/books/story/2020-07-08/margaret-sullivan-ghosting-the-news-review.
Gans, Herbert. 1979. Deciding What’s News. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World is Watching. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.
Mettler, Suzanne. 2011. The Submerged State. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Pew Research Center. 2019. “For Local News, Americans Embrace Digital but Still Want Strong Community Connection.” March 26. https://www.journalism.org/2019/03/26/for-local- news-americans-embrace-digital-but-still-want-strong-community-connection/.
Pickard, Victor. 2019. Democracy Without Journalism? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, Margaret. 2020. Ghosting the News. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sullivan, Margaret. 2021. “Congress may be about to help local news. It can’t happen soon enough.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media /sullivan-local-journalism-bill/2021/08/31/68d027fe-0a5d-11ec-aea1-42a8138f132a_ story.html
Szalai, Jennifer. 2020. “Yes, Fake News Is a Problem. But There’s a Real News Problem, Too.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/26/books/review-ghosting- news-local-journalism-democracy-crisis-margaret-sullivan.html.