Tag Archives: news desert

The Virus vs. Journalism

The disappearance of local information

A newspaper machine is seen in New Orleans last month. Credit…Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New York Times, by David Leonhardt, April 30, 2020 •  This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

Local journalism was in deep trouble before the coronavirus.

The internet has taken away the main source of revenue for newspapers — print advertisements — leading to a rapid shrinking of the industry. Nationwide, the number of people employed in newsrooms fell about 25 percent between 2008 and 2019, and it’s probably down more than 50 percent from its peak.

If local papers were being replaced by digital publications covering local news, this trend wouldn’t be a problem. But that’s not happening. Instead, many Americans lack basic information about their communities — like what their mayor, school board, local employers and more are doing.

The disappearance of this information has big effects. Academic research has found that voter turnout and civic engagement tend to decline when newspapers shrink or close. Fewer people run for office. Political corruption and polarization rise.

“Local newspapers are basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies,” Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, has written.

Now the virus is taking this crisis to a new level.

The rapid shrinking of the economy — at the fastest pace since the Great Depression — has led to a further decline in advertising. Some newspapers that were on the brink may not survive. And many more journalists have been laid off. As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has noted, “it’s happening around the world,” with newspapers in Australia and Britain announcing that “they were going out of business or suspending print publication.”

What’s the solution? In the short term, Sullivan and some media observers have called for government stimulus money to be directed at local news outlets, as is happening for many other industries.

Writing in The Atlantic, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott of Report for America offer an intriguing idea:

The federal government can do something quite concrete right now: As part of its stimulus plans, it should funnel $500 million in spending for public-health ads through local media. The government already spends about $1 billion on public-service ads that promote initiatives such as military recruitment and census participation. The stimulus should add another $1 billion to support the communication of accurate health-related information. Some of those ads should go to social-media platforms and national news networks, but half should go to local news organizations. This is not a bailout; the government will be buying an effective way of getting health messages to the public, and could even customize the notices to specific audiences.

Long term, however, stimulus isn’t the answer. Local journalism needs a new business model. (National journalism, by the way, is doing OK, thanks in part to the growth of subscription-based journalism, at The New York Times and elsewhere.)

My hope is that somebody will eventually find a way to make money providing useful local information. Until then, the answer will almost certainly need to involve philanthropy, much as philanthropy has long supported public radio.

You’ve heard me say this before, and it’s never been more true: If you have a local source of news that you trust, I hope you can find a way to support it financially.

That source may still be a traditional local newspaper, which sells subscriptions. But I know many people now live in communities where companies like Alden Global Capital have taken over newspapers and are bleeding them for some final profits. (See Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo for more on this.)

In that case, see if your community now has a nonprofit start-up as well, in the mold of the Texas Tribune.

And if you have no good local options, you may even want to think about starting a movement to change that.


For more …

  • Poynter has a running list of the newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures caused by the coronavirus.

  • Matt Laslo, NBC News Think:

The ability for people to get timely, unbiased information on local conditions in their communities is more important than ever. Doing so, however, is increasingly more difficult than ever before — and could get even worse. Many newsrooms were already facing hard times before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered much of America’s economy. … And in the absence of local news organizations, we could all face an unprecedented attack from a second invisible enemy: Fake news parading as fact, with nothing and nobody to counter its spread.

  • Politico’s Jack Shafer argues against stimulus for newspapers:

It might make sense for the government to assist otherwise healthy companies — such as the airlines — that need a couple of months of breathing space from the viral shock to recover and are in a theoretical position to repay government loans sometime soon. But it’s quite another thing to fling a life buoy to a drowning swimmer who doesn’t have the strength to hold on. Newspapers are such a drowning industry. Readers have abandoned them in the tens of millions. Advertisers have largely abandoned them. For the most part, the virus isn’t causing them to sink. They’re already sunk.

In the triage of rescuing flailing firms, some sectors must be left dead unless we want to make permanent welfare cases out of them — and that’s a much different argument than a bailout. It would also be a grievous error to bail out papers controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund — and other firms like them — that have made a practice of squeezing high profits while simultaneously cutting staff and escalating subscription prices.


David Leonhardt
David Leonhardt

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David Leonhardt, a former Washington bureau chief for The Times, was the founding editor of The Upshot and the head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt  Facebook

COVID-19: Deep newspaper job cuts prompt rare plea for federal funding to news media; Reps, Senators want to help

[Editor: See also Blumenthal, Rosenthal Call For Supporting Local Journalism, The Newtown Bee.  – RS]

New closures, layoffs in already cratering industry lead to request for help from Congress

Two years ago, the Daily Guide newspaper closed for good in central Missouri. Now, newspapers across the country are cutting staff and closing due to coronavirus shutdowns. (Orlin Wagner/AP)
Washington Post, by Jonathan O’Connell, April 16, 2020

An economic free fall in the local news industry began long before the coronavirus started wreaking havoc on the national economy.

Since shutdowns to combat the virus began, things have gotten much worse, as advertisers halted spending and publishers slashed more journalists’ jobs and hours despite the public’s need for information on the pandemic.

Cuts to the industry have accelerated so greatly that groups representing journalists have taken a maybe unprecedented step and asked the government to help, by keeping the industry afloat financially during the pandemic and seeding its resurgence once the economy begins to recover.

“We have to treat this as an emergency,” said Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild labor union. “There is a real interest in public health to keep people informed in this crisis.”

Staff at the guild, which was founded during the Great Depression, said they cannot remember asking for taxpayer support. The role of the Fourth Estate in covering the government makes such a request awkward.

But since the pandemic began, newspaper chains have instituted furloughs of 10 to 25 percent of their staffs. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which covers a metropolitan area of more than 2 million people, lost 28 of its 32 union journalists this month due to new cuts. Papers in Seattle, Portland, Boston, Sacramento, Reno and elsewhere have suspended print operations and furloughed their staffs, according to Poynter.

In a span of two days, April 8 and 9, dozens of groups wrote to Congress asking it to support local news. The guild wrote congressional leadership seeking financial support as part of ongoing economic stimulus discussions. A long list of advocacy groups, led by Pen America and Common Cause, wrote their own letter. Industry groups led by the News Media Alliance and the National Association of Broadcasters wrote as well.

The cutbacks in advertising are “dealing a sharp and immediate blow to local news publishing,” said News Media Alliance president and chief executive David Chavern, in a statement. “If this continues, there won’t be local journalism in many communities.”

Although other industries have asked Congress for financial support due to the pandemic, requests from the news media raise numerous issues. Congressional leadership has not agreed on what another round of bailout money will look like, with some Republicans resisting policy changes that could benefit one industry or another.

Policymakers are also wrestling with whether aid that has already been approved, in the $2.2 trillion Cares Act, should go to companies that were already struggling. Retailers, for instance, have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers but may not be eligible for aid because of questions about their credit and viability. Many newspaper companies, such as McClatchy, which filed for bankruptcy in February, could carry similar concerns.

Policymakers have also resisted bailing out private equity funds, which have a habit of buying companies, including many newspaper publishers, and then siphoning off profits while cutting staff. Indeed, private equity firms have been behind many of the cuts that led to America losing an estimated one-quarter of its journalists from 2008 to 2018.

Some newspaper owners are likely to be eligible for aid from existing programs in the Cares Act aimed at benefiting workers in a wide range of industries. McClatchy, publisher of the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star and other regional dailies, declined to comment on what aid it might pursue, as did Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other papers.

There is also the question of whether news publishers would sacrifice some of their independence in asking the government for a special carve-out the way hotels, airlines and other industries have.

Gannett, which recently combined with GateHouse Media in a $1.2 billion deal, announced last month that chief executive Paul Bascobert would stop taking a salary, that it would cut executives’ pay by 25 percent and that it would require most reporters and editors across the country to take week-long, unpaid furloughs on a rotating basis.

Gannett, based in McLean, Va., issued a statement saying it is considering some of the benefits provided to all U.S. companies through the Cares Act. However, the company said it has “no plans to pursue special relief from the government.”

“Maintaining our independence is critically important,” spokeswoman Stephanie Tackach said in a statement. “As a news organization, we play an essential role providing our communities with clear, up-to-date information.”

Schleuss said he understands why any publisher or journalist would be reticent to make such a request, but the pandemic created unique urgency to avoid what he called an “extinction-level event” for the industry.

The guild has called for financial support that requires recipients to remain independent from political influence, halt job cuts, provide board seats to employees and promote diversity and equity in newsrooms.

“In this moment especially, we have to keep journalists employed,” Schleuss said. “People are just hearing crackpot cures and ideas on Facebook because they have no other better source for information. And that’s a real shame for America.”

To address those concerns, members of Congress, who are focused on the issue, are highlighting the unique role that local news plays in society. Nineteen Senate Democrats, led by Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), wrote their own April 8 letter to congressional leadership, asking that any future stimulus packages related to the coronavirus contain funding to “support local journalism and media.”

“Such a provision should be tailored to benefit aid recipients who make a long-term commitment to high quality local news,” they wrote.

Other members of Congress are advancing more specific plans. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has drafted a bill that would require half of government advertising for things such as the census and military recruitment go to publishers of local news, rather than national outlets. It would also create a tax credit for publishers who hire local news reporters, a new loan program for publishers, and would encourage some publishers to become nonprofit organizations.

Ryan said he began focusing on the demise of local news when the 150-year-old daily paper in Youngstown, Ohio, went out of business last year. He said he hopes his ideas will be considered part of stimulus discussions. A dozen House Democrats have signed on to the idea, but no Republican has.

“Every politician has a complicated relationship with the media, but it is an essential component of democracy,” Ryan said in an interview. He said local city council meetings and decision-making often go uncovered.

“There is just a general concern that no one is keeping an eye on local government anymore,” he said.


Jonathan O’Connell is a reporter focused on economic development, corporate accountability and the Trump Organization.

NY Times report on rescue of local newspaper in Downieville, CA

Meet the Unlikely Hero Saving California’s Oldest Weekly Paper

High in the Sierra, Downieville, Calif., was about to become the latest American community to lose its newspaper. In stepped Carl Butz, a 71-year-old retiree.

Carl Butz, the new owner of The Mountain Messenger, in the paper’s office in Downieville, Calif.
deser Carl Butz, the new owner of The Mountain Messenger, in the paper’s office in Downieville, Calif. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
New York Times, By Tim Arango, Feb. 10, 2020

DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. — The night before his first deadline, Carl Butz, California’s newest newspaper owner, was digging into a bowl of beef stew at the Two Rivers Café, the only restaurant open in town.

“Tomorrow I have to fill the paper,” he said with only mild anxiety. “The question is, will it be a four-page paper or a six-page paper?”

At 71, Mr. Butz is trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped silver beard, and he dresses in flannel shirts and cargo pants. Since his retirement and his wife’s death in 2017, he considered traveling — to England or Latvia, or riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. But here he was, a freshly minted newspaper proprietor, having stepped in at the beginning of the year to save The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, from extinction.

The Messenger was founded in 1853. Its most famous scribe was Mark Twain, who once wrote a few stories — with a hangover, the legend goes — while hiding out here from the law.

Newspapers across America, especially in rural areas like here in Sierra County, have been dying at an alarming rate, and Downieville was about to become the latest “news desert.” The obituaries for the paper had already been written. Don Russell, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor with a blunt writing style who had owned and run the paper for nearly three decades, was retiring, and he seemed happy enough for the paper to die with his retirement.

And then one night Mr. Butz was watching “Citizen Kane” on cable and thought, I can do that. He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the “four figures,” he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books.

Still, Mr. Russell, an old friend of Mr. Butz’s, was a reluctant seller. “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy,” Mr. Butz said. “He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.”

For the residents of Downieville — and there are not many; the population is about 300 — who for generations counted on The Messenger to arrive every Thursday, through wildfires and power outages and economic booms and busts, Mr. Butz has become an unlikely local hero, a savior of a cherished institution.

“Thank God for Carl, he stepped in,” said Liz Fisher, a former editor of the paper who lives across the street from its office and runs The Sierra County Prospect, an online news site. “It was devastating for everybody that we were going to lose The Mountain Messenger.”

A cluttered, smoke-filled newsroom

On a recent Wednesday morning, facing his first deadline, Mr. Butz was staring down a blank computer screen in the newspaper’s cramped two-room office above a beauty salon on Main Street. Mr. Butz, a fourth-generation Californian and a former computer programmer and labor economist for the state, readily admitted that he had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and it did not help to learn that the paper’s publishing software was from the mid-1990s.

One of the first things he said he would do after buying the paper was ban smoking in the office, but next to his keyboard was a package of unfiltered cigarettes and an ashtray.

“What is the lead story?” Mr. Butz asked.

“The front page is blank,” replied Jill Tahija, the paper’s only other employee, sitting at an adjacent computer.

Mr. Butz and Jill Tahija, The Messenger’s only other employee, working on an edition of the paper.
Mr. Butz and Jill Tahija, The Messenger’s only other employee, working on an edition of the paper. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Ms. Tahija, who has worked at The Messenger for 11 years, might properly be called the managing editor, but on her business cards it says, “she who does the work.”

Her small black-and-white dog, Ladybug, a Boston terrier-Shih Tzu-Chihuahua mix, bounded around the cluttered newsroom. On every surface were books and trinkets and junk — Civil War histories, annals of the county, dictionaries, empty beer bottles, packages of ramen noodles.

In the archives section are old papers dating to the 1850s, and on the walls are pictures of Mark Twain and some slogans — old saws of newspapering, like “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Mr. Russell, who was on vacation, driving his R.V. up the coast with his wife, when Mr. Butz took over the paper, once told The Los Angeles Times that Twain had written a few unremarkable stories for The Messenger. Mr. Russell had read them on microfilm at a library. “They were awful,” he said. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

At his computer, Mr. Butz was putting together one of his first new features for the paper, a “poetry corner.” (He selected “Thoughts,” by Myra Viola Wilds, an African-American poet from Kentucky who wrote in the early 20th century.) As Ms. Tahija worked on the front page — the next day it would be filled with stories about a local poetry competition, the upcoming census, wildfire prevention and a local supervisors meeting — Mr. Butz shifted his focus to finishing his letter to readers.

In it, he explained why he bought the paper. “Simply put,” he wrote, “the horrible thought of this venerable institution folding up and vanishing after 166 years of continuous operation was simply more than I could bear.”

The newspaper, he wrote, was “something we need in order to know ourselves.”

‘Like losing a friend’

Making a newspaper in Downieville is strictly an analog, ink-on-paper affair; there is no website, no social media accounts. It loses a few thousand dollars a year, and relies mostly on publishing legal notices from the county and other government offices, which brings in about $50,000 a year, for the bulk of its revenue. It has about 700 subscribers and a print run of 2,400 copies, just below the county’s population.

“I’m not going to lose a million dollars but I know I’m going to have to subsidize some of it,” Mr. Butz said. “My daughter is already aware that her inheritance is shrinking.”

Downtown Downieville.
Downtown Downieville. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Downieville is a remarkably well-preserved old Gold Rush town, perched at a fork in the Yuba River in remote western Sierra County. History is its pitch to tourists, and it has the feel of a backlot for an Old West movie — in its corner saloon, in the one-lane bridges over the Yuba, and in the second-story offices of The Messenger, next to the Fire Department. (A painted message on the door says it is the “oldest volunteer fire department west of the Mississippi.”)

With the demise of gold mining and the shuttering of the sawmills that were once an economic engine for the region, Downieville reinvented itself as a destination for mountain biking and fly fishing, with an abundance of Old West charm.

Residents reacted to Mr. Butz’s last-minute purchase of the paper with a mixture of relief and gratitude.

“A real sense of relief,” said Lee Adams, a former Sierra County sheriff and a current member of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

The paper was always an important institution, but it had become more so in recent years as Northern California dailies like The Sacramento Bee and The San Francisco Chronicle stopped distributing in the region, and rarely sent reporters to cover Sierra County.

“We would have to fall off the face of the earth to make one of those papers on a normal news day,” Mr. Adams said.

An edition of the weekly paper was distributed in Sierra County, Calif., on a recent Thursday.
An edition of the weekly paper was distributed in Sierra County, Calif., on a recent Thursday. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

The Messenger is more than just a chronicle of weekly happenings — government meetings, births and deaths, the police blotter, the weather — but also a repository of the county’s history. The paper is just a year younger than Sierra County, which was founded in 1852, the year Wells Fargo was established to serve the Gold Rush and the riches being dredged from the river.

When Bill Copren, 76, a local historian and a former county assessor, wrote his master’s thesis on the political history of Sierra County in the mid-19th century, he relied on The Messenger’s archives.

More recently, when officials secured a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for a local school built in the Art Deco style in 1931, they used the paper’s archives to confirm the details of how it was built and who paid for it.

The paper’s closure, Mr. Copren said, would have been “like losing a friend.”

Under Mr. Russell, The Messenger had a distinctive attitude and a brusque, straightforward style. He was averse to political correctness and not immune from using curse words in print.

Mr. Butz said he did not plan to own the paper for long, and wanted to find a younger person who could take over. He said he was thinking about bringing the paper into the digital age, with a website, and was thinking about turning it into a nonprofit publication, accepting donations and grants to keep it running.

But on a recent Thursday morning, the day after deadline, he was just happy to have his first issue under his belt.

His Thursday routine is now established: He gets up early and drives about an hour and a half to a printing plant in Quincy, Calif., to pick up the bundles of freshly printed newspapers. On the way, he and Scott McDermid, the paper’s longtime distribution manager, stop at the Express Coffee Shop for waffles and eggs.

Mr. Butz putting copies of The Messenger in a distribution box outside the Golden West Saloon in Loyalton, Calif.
Mr. Butz putting copies of The Messenger in a distribution box outside the Golden West Saloon in Loyalton, Calif. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

And then, with a truck full of papers, they crisscross the county, past the tall cedars and Douglas firs of the mountains, and across the Sierra Valley, dotted with junipers and cottonwoods, stopping at every shop and gas station, emptying newspaper machines of last week’s edition, collecting money and dropping off fresh bundles of The Messenger.

The story around town is how Mr. Butz saved the local newspaper.

But Mr. Butz, a still-grieving widower — his wife, Cecilia Kuhn, the drummer in an all-female punk band, Frightwig, died in 2017 — sees it another way.

“It’s saving me,” he said.

Publishing The Messenger is an analog, ink-on-paper affair. There are no social media accounts, though Mr. Butz said he was thinking about creating a website for the paper.
Publishing The Messenger is an analog, ink-on-paper affair. There are no social media accounts, though Mr. Butz said he was thinking about creating a website for the paper. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
Tim Arango is a Los Angeles correspondent. Before moving to California, he spent seven years as Baghdad bureau chief and also reported on Turkey. He joined The Times in 2007 as a media reporter.

UPDATE: Martinez News-Gazette publishing one print edition weekly

By Roger Straw, February 4, 2020
Announcement from p. 3 of the January 12, 2020 edition of the Martinez News-Gazette

The news is still a bit sketchy, but today I heard from Nick Sestanovich, former editor of the Benicia Herald, commenting on my story yesterday, “News of the death of Martinez News-Gazette was premature…”

Nick pointed out that the editor of the Martinez News-Gazette “was able to find another company to continue publishing the paper as a weekly.”

P. 1 of the January 12, 2020 edition of the Martinez News-Gazette

The print edition is a full color Sunday paper, and it looks great!  Here’s an online pictorial copy of the Sunday, January 12 edition.  The announcement on page 3 goes like this: “Martinez News-Gazette Continues!  PCM Publishing LLC, owner of  The Hemet & San Jacinto Chronicle along with Rick Jones, editor of the Martinez News-Gazette for the past six years announce the continuation of the Martinez News-Gazette.  In the upcoming weeks look for a new, full-color edition of the Gazette to be published weekly.  We will continue to provide the best hyper-local news coverage in Martinez.”

P. 1 of the January 19, 2020 edition of the Martinez News-Gazette

It’s something of a sleuth job to discover other online versions of the print publication.  I was able to locate the January 19 edition at martinezgazette.com/martinez-news-gazette-jan-19-2020, but subsequent editions either didn’t get posted online, or they are following some other URL protocol.

The new owner (or co-owner along with Rick Jones?) is PCM Publishing.  I’m not sure, but pcm.com might be the company in question.

HERE IN BENICIA… we are hopeful that if and when Benicia Herald owner (and former owner of the Martinez News-Gazette) David Payne realizes that his 121-year-old Benicia treasure has – for several years now – hit rock bottom, he is able to find a backer and sell, so that Benicia continues to have a local newspaper, and a more vibrant one at that.