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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: A good newspaper can bring together a community, author Margaret Sullivan says

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

 (Rob Tornoe)
(Rob Tornoe)
By Rob Curley The Spokesman-Review

Margaret Sullivan knows what it‘s like to not just love newspapers, but especially love one in particular.

She worked at the Buffalo News for 30 years. First, as an intern and eventually as that paper’s top editor for more than a decade. Each morning, across Lake Erie, she can still see the city whose living history she helped document for most of her life. And, of course, she’s a daily subscriber to the Buffalo News.

But most of the country knows Sullivan from her other jobs as the public editor for the New York Times, a position that looks out directly for readers and reported directly to the publisher, and now as the current media columnist for The Washington Post. She recently published a book that explains with wide-open eyes both the deep problems local news organizations are experiencing and, more important, how devastating this downfall is to democracy.

Sullivan will discuss all of this and her new book, as well as take questions from readers, in today’s virtual Northwest Passages book club forum on spokesman.com/bookclub at 4 p.m. . Her book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” was released in July and is already in its second printing. The forum is free and also will be made available to stream on-demand via the NWP website.

Margaret Sullivan.  (Courtesy photo)
Sullivan

It is available at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane. For those who purchase the book there, the Northwest Passages Book Club has made arrangements with Sullivan to get autograph plates so signed books are still very much a part of NWP … even during a pandemic.

It’s her love and deep knowledge of how newspapers work that make the book such an interesting read – especially for those who have never worked in a newsroom. It’s not layered with inside baseball, and instead focuses much more on the implications of an industry on the verge.

“The book was very emotional for me and still is,” Sullivan said during a phone interview Tuesday. “I get the Buffalo News in print every day and just the act of walking out onto the deck each day is a reminder of how much that relationship means to me.

“This book and subject matter are very close to my heart. Newspapers have been my whole life really since high school, and it’s very painful to watch what has happened.”

She’s also quick to note that there are some hopeful and good things happening, but her bigger point is that the last thing she wanted to do with this book was be mired in the “nostalgic nonsense of the past.” Especially when the future is what is the most important for the survival of local news and its role in democracy.

Still, you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, and that’s one of her book’s biggest strengths. Even if it’s recent history.

Sullivan outlines lots of interesting developments in organizations across the nation, including some that are heartbreaking. She was in Youngstown, Ohio, for the death of that community’s daily newspaper, the Vindicator. In August 2019, shortly after the paper celebrated its 150th anniversary, it closed.

“I was in that newsroom in its final days and got to know the paper’s editors as well as some of the reporters, and even attended a community meeting where everybody cried and was very upset about it closing. It was awful in a lot of ways,” Sullivan said.

“It was certainly emotional for me, and a lot of the reporting for this book was tough to do because of my own passion for local journalism.”

Does that mean she misses being in the middle of it all like she was for so long?

Hardly.

Since leaving the Buffalo News in 2012, Sullivan hasn’t thought of running another newsroom, even though publishers still ask if she might be interested.

“I’ve already been an editor, and it was even for my hometown newspaper, and now I really want to do other things,” Sullivan said. “Teaching, writing books, writing columns – those are the things I really want to do now. It’s not a traditional path, but it’s been a great path for me … and it just sort of happened that way.

“No one would plan to do it this way,” she said with a laugh.

The great irony in her book is it outlines an industry in trouble, yet clearly needed on so many levels – but it was written before things got even worse for local media due to COVID-19.

“Newspapers, especially in their traditional form, are going to become a smaller and smaller part of the media ecosystem,” Sullivan said. “Other things – maybe nonprofit newsrooms or local TV or public radio – are going to have to fill in that gap.

“The problem I see with that is those aren’t things that often circulate very well locally, or find their way into people’s hands. They aren’t the things that knit the community together the way a good newspaper can.”

Spoken like someone who isn’t afraid to get a little ink on her fingers every morning. And still very much loves her local newspaper.

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