Since 2004, the U.S. has lost 2,100 newspapers, and all too often, when the local paper folds, it leaves a news desert—an area with no local coverage.
The decline of newspapers “is an alarming situation but one that most members of the public don’t seem very tuned into,” said author Margaret Sullivan.
But she does an excellent job of filling you in with Ghosting The News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.
In her book, Sullivan, who has been editor at The New York Times and The Buffalo News, draws a connection between the decline of local news and what’s happening in society.
“…Democracy suffers when journalism fades.”
Although many people give little, if any, thought to local newspapers, communities face consequences when they’re gone.
Governments’ borrowing costs, deficits, and wages go up. Meanwhile, government efficiency, transparency and accountability go down.
“It’s really important to the public to have the watchdog…I’m afraid that five or six years out, we’re going to end up with no local newspapers. And I’ll tell you what: It’s going to be a field day for corruption,” she quoted Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher and owner of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette saying.
Sullivan expands the discussion beyond risks and consequences to discuss how the local news business went from being part of the daily routine to a withering industry.
Multiple factors were involved, she explains. But one of the most profound and enduring wounds is the loss of advertising revenues.
Google and Facebook essentially scalped newspapers.
“By some estimates, the duopoly was sucking up 60% of all digital advertising revenues in the United States by the middle of the last decade…this seemed almost diabolical because the platforms benefited from content—the news stories, videos, photo galleries, etc—that that old-school companies, but siphoned off the revenue,” Sullivan wrote.
Newspapers were left in anguish, unable to reverse the tide because they had a product that was inefficient and growing outdated—untargeted print ads with a limited reach.
Meanwhile, advertisers have steadily turned not only to the duopoly but also to other internet-based companies that can offer what they’re looking for — “low prices, precise targeting and unprecedented reach.”
“Local newspapers cannot compete directly,” Reuters Institute concluded.
Still, Sullivan explores the efforts to fight back, like Hussman’s decision to give $12 million worth of iPads to subscribers so they could read his paper in digital format.
Some efforts have stopped the bleeding better than others. But none thus far has proven to be a model for a new normal that will return the newspaper business to its heights.
And although Sullivan doesn’t close without hope, she is candid about the outlook for the future:
“The loss of local news will continue, especially in the rural and remote areas… The damage done by those losses will accelerate. American politics will become more polarized, government and business corruption will flourish; the glue that holds communities together will weaken.”
Ghosting The News should be on the reading list for all journalists, including freelancers.
Independent media has been and will continue to play a growing role in society. Whether the kingpins of media like it or not, people have diversified their sources of information.
And not only does this book offer insight on the traditional newspaper industry in less than 90 pages, but it also exposes their missteps and their weaknesses. It offers lessons that you can learn from.
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