Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan joined Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley on Thursday to discuss her new book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” during a livestreamed Northwest Passages Book Club forum.
In “Ghosting the News,” Sullivan explores what happens to democracy in the U.S. when local journalism dies. She surveys the damage already done and efforts to keep local news alive.
During Thursday’s forum, Sullivan discussed journalism as activism and global versus local news, among many other subjects. But the topic that came up most was the decline of local newspapers.
Northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review
Northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review
While local papers are struggling, Sullivan explained, papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have harnessed their broad international audiences to find the revenue to keep them viable.
Smaller papers, on the other hand, have struggled.
Sullivan gave the example of the Vindicator, the local, family-owned paper in Youngstown, Ohio. Having spent summers in the Rust Belt town of Buffalo, Nebraska, where she saw steel mills close and a suffering car industry, she finds her attention drawn to similar situations.
So when she heard the Vindicator was going to shut down full-stop within a month of the closure announcement, she “figured it would be a good idea to go to Youngstown.”
“Out of the blue, this paper that had existed for 150 years was going to close its doors the following month,” Sullivan said. “It wasn’t going to go partly, cut back to delivering a couple of times a week or scale back. No, it was going to go from a full-scale seven-day-a-week delivery to nothingness.”
In Youngstown, Sullivan spent time in the Vindicator newsroom, speaking with editors and reporters and gathering data. At one point, she attended a community meeting.
“The community had just found out that in the next couple of weeks they were going to lose their paper. People were in tears,” she said. “People that had delivered the paper, or had their parents obituaries in the paper, or their son’s touchdown. They called it the ‘Vindy.’ It was a big part of the community.”
But, in the end, their sadness didn’t amount to much.
She remembered talking to an editor from the paper after the meeting. She recalled him saying, “It was very poignant to hear people so sad that we’re going to close, but I wonder if we had asked for a show of hands, how many of you actually subscribe to the paper?”
He guessed there wouldn’t be many; circulation had plummeted.
“People might’ve had a romantic idea that they liked the paper, and maybe they benefited from it, but they weren’t necessarily supporting it,” Sullivan said.
“This is one of the big takeaways for me. You don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it. Think about what our cities, our towns would be like if those newspapers simply weren’t around anymore. Not shrunken, not part-time, but gone. That’s happening all over the country.”
Two thousand papers have gone out of business since 2004, she said, and even more are folding now due to the pandemic and the economic downturn.
“What’s at the root of it is, our business model has disintegrated under our feet,” she said.
Several audience questions focused on the particular difficulties involved in funding local journalism.
“It used to be that ad salesmen weren’t even allowed in the newsroom,” she said. “So, in a donor-supported newsroom, how are we supposed to protect the journalism?”
Sullivan explained the need for widespread community support as well as support from donors “with deep pockets.” At the same time, receiving support from large donors carries the necessity of mitigating interference from bigger donors.
“We need to be independent,” she said.
“It’s called the fourth estate for a reason,” Curley noted. “Tt’s supposed to be the checks and balances for the checks and balances.”
“There is hope, but it’s not one single answer,” Sullivan said. “My hope is that people understand what a dire situation this is and that people realize the role that can play by supporting their local newspapers.”
To view the Livestream recording visit spokesman.com/northwest-passages.
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