One day late last month, SUNY Oswego associate journalism professor Eileen Gilligan took an unofficial poll of students in two of her classrooms. It came after a call from a Watertown Daily Times reporter seeking her input about the recently released PEN America study, “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions.”
The report calls for a major infusion of public and private investments to support local journalism, among other suggestions.
Ms. Gilligan wanted to know the thoughts of some of her students as they prepare to enter the world of journalism. Is there optimism about a future in such a potential “losing” proposition?
“As journalism majors, they’re still looking forward to the future and excited about it,” Ms. Gilligan said.
One student told her that he was more positive about journalism’s future now than he was a few years ago when he started college.
“Some others agreed with this,” Ms. Gilligan said. “They think there are so many outlets, overall, not just local, that they do think they’ll be able to get jobs as journalists.”
The PEN report says that since 2004, nearly 1,800 newspapers have closed. But “Losing the News” notes that it’s not just print that is facing struggles.
“Other local news sources (TV, radio stations) continue to see widespread consolidation under conglomerates that lean on one-size-fits-all national news, the very sort of news now widely distrusted,” wrote playwright, novelist and PEN America trustee Ayad Akhtar in an opening letter accompanying the report.
“And a new generation of media owners — private equity and hedge fund investors — are reducing editorial and reporting staff to cut costs and increase profit margins,” the report says. “These pressures have diminished the quantity and quality of local news available to communities.”
According to data from the Pew Research Center released this past summer, from 2008 to 2018, media newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 25%.
“In 2008, about 114,000 newsroom employees — reporters, editors, photographers and videographers — worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and other information services,” Pew Research discovered. “By 2018, that number had declined to about 86,000, a loss of about 28,000 jobs.”
But employment at newspapers drove the overall decline. It is newspapers, with their larger staffs of reporters, that have traditionally been the watchdogs and storytellers of communities.
“The number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 47% between 2008 and 2018, from about 71,000 workers to 38,000,” Pew Research said in its report.
The New York Press Association represents 721 newspapers in the state, providing editorial assistance, advice and counsel. The papers it represents includes approximately 50 daily newspapers. NYPA executive director Michelle K. Rea said the industry’s struggles began to seriously hit home in 2008; Craigslist had decimated newspapers’ classified revenue.
“Then Google and Facebook entered the field and they now control more than 60% of digital ad revenue,” Mrs. Rea said. “In 2018 the New Media Alliance estimated that Google earned $47 billion dollar off of news content created by others — and they paid zero dollars for the privilege.”
Mrs. Rea said the government needs to step in to reverse that situation.
“It’s time that Facebook and Google be required to pay publishers for either linking to their content or repurposing it,” she said. “It’s absolutely, positively unacceptable that that’s not happening.”
Since 2005, the PEN report says, U.S. newspapers have lost more than $35 billion in ad revenue.
The report also notes a proposal to create a “link tax,” or ancillary copyright tax which would require search engines and content aggregators to pay publishers for permission to link or reproduce content.
“Another key proposal is more direct: a tax on the revenue that tech giants generate from targeted advertisements, which would go to directly supporting local public-interest journalism,” the PEN report says.
Mrs. Rea said the federal government should also look at “regulating and preventing these big hedge funds consolidating newspapers across the country and then decimating them.”
The PEN report says that as of 2018, just 25 companies owned two-thirds of the country’s daily newspapers. “New corporate owners frequently make significant cuts to reporting staff to cut costs,” the report says.
Judy Patrick, NYPA’s vice president for editorial development, spent 35 years at The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, including working years there as editor and senior vice president. She called the PEN report “the most comprehensive look at a very complicated situation.”
Her solution to turn the tide of troubles is basic.
“I’m a believer in subscribers,” Ms. Patrick said. “People paying for content is eventually going to save us. I agree that there are a lot of alternate revenue sources that are needed, but I think we have to get people back in the habit of reading, enjoying and supporting their local newspaper.”
“If you look at a paper from 10 to 15 years ago, it was full of local advertising,” Mrs. Rea said. “That needs to come back too. It will come back once you get your audience back. I think we have to work harder to get that audience back.”
THE POWER OF KNOWLEDGE
But the PEN report says “Losing the News” is more than about the loss of advertising and readers. A free press helps to make democracy run. There is this, from James Madison: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Local news, the PEN report says, drives civic engagement. When local news is lost, studies show citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed and less likely to run for office.
“We are lucky here in the north country to have the largest news staff in the region,” said Alec E. Johnson, managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times and NNY360.com. “Though our ranks are thinner than in decades past, we have remained committed to reporting local news from Oswego to Malone.”
Newspaper reporting, which remains the basis of much local reporting, allows a community a mirror in which to reflect, Mr. Johnson said. The reporting shows the good and warns the community of the bad, while preserving history for the generations to come.
“Those in office are also less likely to follow the rules without reporters asking skeptical questions of their motives,” Mr. Johnson said. “Our reporters continue to ask those questions. Readers of our news, and the community at large, benefit. I encourage readers who do not subscribe to this paper already to subscribe to support the reporters who live and work in our communities.”
Cary R. Brick, who spent 30 years in the Northern New York Congressional office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as a chief of staff, said local news reports provide elected officials the pulse of communities.
“Without local news, a community is going to bubble,” said Mr. Brick, who worked at the Watertown Daily Times in the mid-1960s as a reporter. “A community in a bubble doesn’t allow people to be active participants in a democracy. You have to have a voice.”
“The report is pretty clear in places where local newspapers have disappeared, the number of people running for office has declined and interest in local government has declined,” Ms. Patrick said. “Things are happening at the local level that nobody knows about. People are less interested in what’s happening with their local government. That’s the primary concern. But there’s also civic engagement.”
People have been turning to social media for that engagement.
“But you find that’s a really harsh area,” Ms. Patrick said.
She added that such engagement can’t compare to a local newspaper, with, for example, regular accounts of who got married, got engaged and who died.
“That’s a whole level of community that’s disappearing as well as the very important feature of providing accountability journalism,” Ms. Patrick said.
THE NONPROFIT MODEL
As part of adapting and innovating to survive, the PEN report says some news outlets are transitioning to nonprofit models. “Out of more than 230 nonprofit newsrooms in the United States, nearly three-quarters have launched since 2008,” the report says.
Mrs. Rea said there are a handful on nonprofit newspapers in New York State, but she doesn’t see that approach as a sustainable business model.
Ms. Patrick is also skeptical of it.
“I worry about a small community of 3,000 people, whether they will be able to find a nonprofit supply source that will be able to sustain them,” she said. “The other issue with nonprofits is that they are run by boards. You are going to have people on your board that may be saying, ‘Don’t do that story on my business.’ The chief asset of newspapers is their credibility and trust they have in the community. You have to be very careful to safeguard that.”
“Newspapers need to remain free and independent of anybody who is trying to determine what their news columns contain,” Mrs. Rea said.
There are some rays of light in the gloomy “Losing the News” report, such as “Studies indicate the Americans deeply value and trust their local news sources — more than their national ones.”
The NYPA executives said newspapers should take advantage of that finding.
“I think people at the local level do trust their local newspaper,” Ms. Patrick said. “And that’s something we should take advantage of and celebrate.”
“I feel a little bit like the Wizard of Oz,” Mrs. Rea said. “I feel that newspapers have always had the power, but they’ve forgotten how to use it. We have access to influencers, access to business owners and access to readers. We have access to people nobody else has access to. I don’t think we do enough to leverage that access.”
Ms. Patrick said newspapers need to talk about themselves more. The PEN report says most Americans don’t realize their local “news sources” are in financial peril.
“Historically, we haven’t wanted to talk about ourselves,” Ms. Patrick said. “We thought our work spoke for itself. You didn’t get to know who the reporters and editors were. In the last 10 years, you’ve seen a dramatic change in that. I agree, we have to step up and fight back a little bit. Say, ‘This is what we do. This is why it’s important. This is why we need to care about it.’”