You are, right this minute, taking part in a shrinking pursuit: reading a newspaper. This also means you are intelligent, curious and well-educated. Now, everyone knows that newspapers are in trouble. We know that because we read it in the newspapers. But how bad is it? Penelope Muse Abernathy, a North Carolina U. journalism professor, recently released a report called “The Expanding News Desert,” a look at the industry’s decline from 2004 through 2019. The report does not cover the coronavirus economic disaster, which has led to 50 newspapers across the country shutting down. Also lost: a chain of 14 community newspapers around Chicago, according to the Poynter Institute think tank.
Among Abernathy’s findings:
- The number of newspapers in the United States declined from 8,891 in 2004 to 6,736 at the beginning of this year. Most are in small communities.
- Total newspaper circulation sank from 122 million in 2004 to 68 million – a 44 percent drop — at the end of last year, and that includes digital readership.
- 198 of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States — 108 of them in the South — have no newspaper.
- The 71,640 reporters and editors working at newspapers in 2008 were cut by more than half in 10 years. The bulk of those cuts came in larger regional newspapers, some now called “ghosts” because of their diminished presence.
In one encouraging sign, the report said 83 digital news operations began operating in 2019. Yet an equal number of such sites shut down. Digital outlets also have limitations, since many people in poor and rural areas can’t afford or can’t receive high-speed Internet. There is also the matter of what gets covered. During two months last year, researchers found that nearly half of the stories the Facebook news feeds around North Carolina were about crime or human interest. It meant that there was comparatively little news on education, health, minority groups, the economy, the environment and politics, the report said.
This study concentrates on the smaller papers in smaller towns that are folding, and thus are called the News Desert. No newspaper means no reporter is covering city hall, the water district, high school football, Miss Boll Weevil or the sneaky dealings with the school district budget. So, after 130 years, the weekly Merkel Mail is no more. (Merkel is out in west central Texas.) But large newspapers are having problems, not so much because of journalism, rather, due to clueless business people who think, because they made a lot of money, they can run a newspaper. Take Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell. He bought the Chicago Tribune which, in turn, owned the Los Angeles Times, for $8.2 billion. There’s one small problem. Zell didn’t have $8.2 billion. The company filed for bankruptcy.
The Tribune may be bought by Alden Global Capital, noted for hallowing out the staff, cutting every possible corner and increasing profits. News of Alden’s possible purchase and its seedy reputation led to an outcry from Tribune reporters. Meanwhile, journalists at The Denver Post blasted Alden in a special opinion section. “If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.” Wall Street hedge funds have gotten interested in newspapers, for some reason, with one fund buying a string of papers only to sell to another. It’s all boring, but means journalism is being treated like widget stocks, with little concern for quality.
Of course, press bashers will say that papers are losing readers because no one trusts the press any more. Over the last 15 years, Americans’ trust in the press has dropped by 15 percent. Now only 40 percent have confidence in the media. But you, Mr. or Ms. Newspaper Reader, are making more money than those knuckle-draggers who don’t read papers. The average newspaper reaches about seven in 10 households with incomes of more than $60,000 annually, compared with about four in 10 for viewers of CNN and Fox News. Why should all of this matter to us? Because our large, metropolitan daily newspapers are the feed stock, the basis, for much of our news. Read the Houston Chronicle and you don’t need to watch that evening’s local TV news. Read The New York Times in the morning and watch someone read it to you on that evening’s networks, including Fox. “It’s infuriating. If it wasn’t for The New York Times, network news would have to shut down.” Who said that? Some newspaper groupie? No, it was the late Andy Rooney, who was with CBS for 47 years.
There could have been a solution to this problem, and it has worked for such operations as Planned Parenthood, the Archdiocese of New York, Deja Vu Showgirls in Las Vegas and PaperMoon Springfield, a strip club in Northern Virginia. At least four members of Congress have received funds, including a husband who is casino developer. The solution is the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, that $669-billion federal bailout designed to help the mom-and-pop businesses devastated by the pandemic. (It’s handled by the Small Business Administration.) The loans can be forgiven as long as the organizations meet requirements for keeping their employees on the payroll, and thus would really be grants. Somehow this feel-good program for struggling barber shops and muffler repair firms included Florida’s Democratic Party, the Women’s National Republican Club of New York and Washington lobbyists. Hundreds of news organizations also participated. They ranged from local papers such as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to The Washington Times, which must not have read its own editorials blasting government handouts. But the PPP was too late for many newspapers.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “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.” Stand by, Tom. We may be in for a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter.
Ashby is read at firstname.lastname@example.org