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The slow and painful death of local papers

Joyce Terhaar

It is a story of corruption that will stay secret, politicians who will need fewer votes to win, even dangerous communicable diseases that will spread faster as our best scientists struggle to fight them.

The story is the slow and painful demise of local newspapers, a story whose ending is not yet written but which — without bold intervention and strong reader support — could bring catastrophic repercussions.

Whether you follow the news or not, whether you trust journalists or not, the financial challenges slaying local newspapers will affect your community, your wallet, your quality of life. In some cities, they already have.

We have watched local newspapers lose revenue to tech giants for the better part of the past quarter-century. In recent years, the outcome has become dire, with nearly one in five — almost 1,800 newspapers — closed in the past 15 years, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.

Even more prevalent than closures are what Abernathy calls “ghosts”, newspapers that are a shell of what they were. Tens of thousands of journalists left newsrooms in the decade ending 2017.

You can blame the insatiable grab for profits from hedge-fund ownership such as Alden Global Capital and its Digital First Media. But even companies with deep commitments to their journalistic mission have been forced to issue one layoff after another, dismantling newsroom staffs that once kept a check on the powerful.

When they walked out of the newsroom, those journalists took with them their connections to the community and their knowledge of issues and people. We’ve all lived through the result: your newspaper’s best coverage still might be very good; there’s just not nearly enough of it.

I used to think journalists in digital start-ups would replace newspapers that disappeared. That isn’t happening enough. Abernathy identified hundreds of cities with no credible news source left. And last July, Pew Research Centre reported that in the decade ending in 2017, roughly 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news start-ups. Newspapers still employed more journalists — 39,000 — than the 13,000 at digital sites.

What happens when a community loses a newspaper? Or when the newspaper no longer has enough reporters to cover the news? The Federal Communications Commission as far back as 2011 had a bleak prognosis: “More government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems.”

It was right:

• It costs you money: higher wages for government employees, higher deficits and — perhaps a more esoteric example — higher costs for municipal borrowing. Last May, researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago found all three after looking at how local newspaper closures affected public finance. “ ... local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money.”

• It may hurt your health: scientists with the US Centres for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation told the health news site Stat last year they use local newspaper reports to watch for the spread of infectious diseases and are handicapped in communities without newspapers. For instance, the CDC obtained urgent data about a 2016-17 mumps outbreak in north-west Arkansas only because of coverage from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

• Fewer people hold power: when local newspapers go out of business, several recent studies show, we don’t vote as often or stay engaged with politics. That means fewer people elect our politicians. Think about the last time you voted. Did you vote in every race on the ballot? Or did you skip some because you couldn’t easily find verified information about the candidates?

Without local newspapers, who reveals injustices such as the widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests reported by The Boston Globe in 2003? Or leads a community-wide discussion of race relations and the impact on housing, crime and education, as Ohio’s Akron Beacon Journal did in 1993? Or exposes high death rates among Las Vegas construction workers as the Las Vegas Sun did in 2009? These are only three examples of public service so exemplary that they received a Pulitzer Prize.

We cannot afford to lose this kind of journalism. You can help by subscribing to at least one local newspaper. The Knight Foundation announced a major effort last month to help, committing $300 million to organisations including those that pay for local journalism, such as the American Journalism Project, Report for America and the investigative journalism non-profit ProPublica. Philanthropists around the United States are funding non-profit start-ups to help fill the void.

We should pay attention to what other countries are doing, too, even though government intervention rightly raises some hackles.

Late last year, the Canadian Government announced it would spend $600 million to protect public-service journalism, using tools such as tax incentives. A British inquiry into what it will take to sustain high-quality journalism last month rightly questioned whether it is time for government intervention given the market dominance of Facebook and Google, and made recommendations including possible journalism subsidies.

What about that market dominance?

It is, after all, threatening public-service journalism, an essential part of our democracy and citizen power. In January, we saw Facebook pledge to spend $300 million in the US to help local newspapers, a year after Google promised the same amount.

It’s a good start, but not nearly enough: the duopoly controls most online advertising revenue, benefits from news content, yet doesn’t pay for the substantial cost of quality journalism. Bold intervention is what we need. Will it take the British?

Joyce Terhaar is a board member with the American Society of News Editors and the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee. Follow her at https://twitter.com/jterhaar