Connecting state and local government leaders
The pandemic has exacerbated a preexisting financial crisis.
This story originally appeared on Stateline.
David Erickson got the call directly from the publisher of the Missoulian, the Montana newspaper where he works as a reporter writing about business and housing. You might as well hear it first so you can break the news, the publisher told him earlier in August. The newspaper building, on the riverfront in a highly coveted part of downtown Missoula, was going up for sale for $8.5 million.
Erickson and his colleagues had been working from home during the pandemic, but they hoped to return to their newsroom once it was over. The potential loss of the physical building, owned by Lee Enterprises, felt like a gut punch to an already battered local news operation.
Since 2000, the Missoulian's editorial staff has dwindled from 40 to 21 employees, similar to newspaper losses around the country. The city's local news ecosystem had already taken a hit: Lee in 2017 purchased the rival weekly, the Missoula Independent, and shut it down the next year.
“We're investigating government institutions, we're investigating politicians, we're investigating businesses, we're investigating nonprofits that exert a huge amount of control over the community,” Erickson said. “For every reporter that's lost, that's one less person … digging into important issues that affect the entire community."
Newspapers have been closing at a rapid clip, buckling under the pressure from changing news consumption habits, advertising shifts and many other factors, including consolidated corporate ownership. For outlets covering state and local news, the drop in advertising revenue since the onset of COVID-19 has only exacerbated a preexisting financial crisis. A diminishing number of them can afford daily coverage of state government.
The Tribune Company announced in August it would permanently shutter five physical newsrooms, including the Daily News in New York and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. The newspapers will continue to publish, with reporters, editors and photographers working remotely for the foreseeable future.
"You’ve got this massive public crisis that’s touching every aspect of daily life, that’s hugely politicized from every angle."Rachel Alexander, Writer SALEM REPORTER
Earlier in August, a federal bankruptcy judge approved the sale of the McClatchy newspaper chain to the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. McClatchy, owned by the same family since the California Gold Rush era, is the second-largest local news company in the country. Among its newspapers are the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star and the Sacramento Bee.
Another hedge fund with stakes in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, Alden Global Capital, has a reputation for slashing newspaper staffs to the bare minimum for continued operation. The staff of The Denver Post in 2018 called Alden, its corporate owner, "vulture capitalists" in an editorial calling on the company to invest more in its papers.
All the closures, asset sales, furloughs and layoffs come at a time when quality information is crucial, whether it's about the immediate health concerns of the pandemic, how local and state governments spend federal COVID-19 relief money or when schools will reopen. All are generally the kind of stories covered by local news outlets, typically newspapers.
"You've got this massive public crisis that's touching every aspect of daily life, that's hugely politicized from every angle," said Rachel Alexander, who writes about education and nonprofits for the Salem Reporter, an online publication, and serves as president of the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The professional organization gave out small grants to about 20 Oregon journalists who were laid off or furloughed, Alexander said.
"It's our job to let people know what's going on and convey accurate information, be a watchdog, and also to give people a bit of hope and find those stories of people who are doing OK, or thriving or trying something new in spite of all this," Alexander said. "And there's fewer than ever of us to do it right now."
Since 2004, publishers have shuttered at least 1,800 newspapers, leaving so-called "news deserts" where people have limited information about their communities. In some places, newspapers have had to retreat to fewer printed editions each week or have laid off so many employees that they've become “ghost newspapers” with marginal value to the audience they're supposed to serve.
The decline comes in a moment when people "desperately need information about their communities," said Sarabeth Berman, CEO of the American Journalism Project, which has raised $50 million to support nonprofit newsrooms that have emerged to fill in the gaps.
So far, the project supports 11 nonprofit news outlets, all online. They include Vermont's VTDigger, Mississippi Today and other newsrooms, many of which focus on statehouse coverage. The American Journalism Project's co-founder, venture capitalist John Thornton, in 2008 founded the member-supported Texas Tribune, which has the largest statehouse news bureau in the United States.
"The implications of when you don't have local news are really dire," Berman said. "That really leads us to our starting point, which is that we need to figure out a new way to finance and sustain local news."
The crisis has been growing for more than a decade. The number of newsroom jobs in the United States dropped by 23% from 2008 to 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the research center and Stateline.) There were an estimated 114,000 reporters, editors, photographers, videographers and other people who produce news in 2008. By 2019, that number declined to about 88,000. Most of those job losses were in newspapers.
The consequences are well-studied in academic circles. When a local newspaper dies, evidence shows civic engagement decreases, elected officials are less accountable, corruption is more pervasive and voter participation drops and becomes more polarized.
Local newspapers don't just inform people about what's happening in their community. They're an alternative to national news, which frequently focuses on partisan conflict, said Joshua Darr, an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.
Darr has studied the effect newspaper closures have on increased polarization in voting habits. The loss of local news, Darr's work found, leads to the sort of political polarization that makes governing more difficult both locally and nationally, in part because it focuses on conflict and not the collaboration necessary for thriving local communities.
"People don't know that there's a crisis," Darr said. "People think that local news is financially doing OK and there's no urgency there. And I don't think they realize how close it is to being a real shell of its former self, if it's not already there."
Efforts to address the crisis include bipartisan federal legislation. Earlier this summer, U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat, and Dan Newhouse, a Washington Republican, introduced the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. The proposed law would offer tax credits to local news organizations and their advertisers.
Statehouse coverage, dominated by for-profit newspapers in most places, has suffered as those organizations face financial challenges — now complicated by the coronavirus. The reporters who remain often do so in a diminished capacity.
Peter Wong, who has covered news in Oregon's state capitol since 1980, used to serve on the national board of the now-defunct Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. With few remaining members, the organization fell apart in the wake of the recession.
Wong has worked in recent years for the Portland Tribune, a group of locally owned suburban newspapers. Fellow reporters at his publication who weren't laid off during the pandemic now work only 24 hours a week.
The layoffs come at a time when state lawmakers in Oregon are grappling with critical issues: a $1 billion projected budget shortfall connected to the pandemic and legislation to address concerns about the use of police force, including the use of tear gas on protesters.
Between 2008 and 2019, newspapers cut half of their workers, from an estimated 71,000 to 35,000. For comparison to another for-profit industry that has seen its share of market-related job losses: There were an estimated 51,000 coal miners in the U.S. at the end of 2019, down from 77,800 at the beginning of 2010.
There are some bright spots, particularly in nonprofit news. Back in 2009 when Anne Galloway first started VTDigger, it was a one-woman online news operation with a motto reflecting its scrappy purpose: "Nitty Gritty News for Vermont."
Galloway, like many U.S. newspaper journalists that year, was laid off from her job at the height of the recession. Yet she hoped to remain in journalism, and she saw an unfilled niche in covering state spending and politics. She began building a nonprofit news outlet with a rudimentary WordPress website, little suspecting that what she was doing might one day be a model for keeping local and statehouse news coverage alive in communities where newspapers are in decline.
"I had a donate button on the site right away, just a simple PayPal thing that I did that I somehow cobbled together myself, even though I'm really not very skilled at that kind of thing," Galloway said. "I just thought, you know, since the industry was tanking, that there was no alternative except a nonprofit model. I mean, there were no profits in journalism then, and it's even less available now."
Over the past decade, VTDigger grew from 14,000 unique page views a month to 700,000. It's now not only the largest nonprofit newsroom in Vermont, it's the largest news organization in the state, with 25 employees and a $2 million annual budget supported by memberships, philanthropic donations and corporate underwriting.
"Statehouse reporting is just so incredibly vital for people to understand what's happening with their government and what's happening with their local reps," Galloway said. "And it's really, I think, the most important way people have of influencing policy as it happens. I just think it's a really powerful way to connect people with government."
Erika Bolstad is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Portland, Ore.