For this week’s reporter Q&A, we talked to renowned Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan about her new book, “Ghosting The News.” In the book, Sullivan — who worked her way up from intern to top editor at her hometown newspaper The Buffalo News — sounds a warning bell about the death of local news. And that means dire consequences for American democracy and our communities.
This may not surprise you, Watchdog news junkies, but most Americans are still unaware of this situation. Believe it or not, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 71% of Americans believe local news is doing well financially.
*Interview lightly edited for clarity
You paint a pretty dire picture of massive news closures, even pre-pandemic. How has COVID-19 shaped this landscape now?
Well, local journalism, especially local newspapers, have been in free fall for at least 15 years. That got worse when we had the Great Recession in 2008, because it had such a devastating effect on advertising. Things were pretty bad and 2,000 American newspapers folded by 2019. But when the pandemic began, followed by the economic shutdown, it really exacerbated the trends that were very severe before. Thousands of journalists have lost jobs since the pandemic. (Roughly 36,000 workers at news companies in the U.S. have been laid off, been furloughed or had their pay reduced since the pandemic struck, estimates The New York Times.)
But this is happening at a time when local journalism is even more important than ever. People are depending on local news outlets — not just to tell them what is going on in the country, but their region, town and village. That could be about hospitalization rates or the local rules on reopening. All these things are of great interest, literally matters of life and death. And the fact that there are less and less local news outlets to do this is really troubling.
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In your book, you talk about a few models that have sprung up to fill the need — more nonprofit newsrooms (like us!), citizen journalists and possibly even government-supported news. Some stellar examples: East Lansing Info, a community run website, which has managed to expose stories on local government waste and corruption. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
I see some signs of hope, particularly with digital startups, some of which are nonprofits, and philanthropic efforts. But overall I’m not particularly encouraged. I’m actually very discouraged about the future of local newspapers. There are a few that are doing OK, of course, but, in general, digital subscriptions have not been able to fill the void of regular advertisements and support the business of putting out these very important news products.
Local papers, like Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald, doggedly reported for years on Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking. Herald reporter Julie K. Brown’s decision to interview all the women Epstein victimized made all the difference, and she did all this work after many thought the Epstein saga had gone stale. What happens when news organizations no longer have the time and resources to allow reporters to investigate? Or one that has lawyers on staff, or on call?
Do you think people know and care enough to support local news? Why don’t we think of news the way we think of, for example, schools — as a necessary part of civil society worth supporting?
People don’t recognize how important local news is, and how much trouble it is in, because these organizations were so successful for such a long time. They were making 30% profit margins for years, making money hand over fist. Public understanding hasn’t caught up with that. I do think it’s important people understand that this is no longer the case, and to sound the alarm. We need to think hard and very fast about how to save something that is such an important part of American democracy.
Isn’t it deeply depressing to write something that feels like a dirge?
I was depressed before. I already knew the big picture I painted in the book before I started, but when researching, I was actually finding hopeful signs. It gave me some sense there are answers. After all, it doesn’t matter if we save local newspapers, if we save local journalism.