… Up first, a brand new 538 piece by Joshua Darr. The LSU professor worked with colleagues to show that “less local news meant more polarization” in communities. “Then, with a little luck,” he wrote, “we were also able to study the other side of the coin — whether more local news could actually bring people together.” The answer was yes, at least in Palm Springs, California.
But, Darr wrote, “the market is simply not providing local newspapers the resources they need to deliver the civic benefits they’re capable of, which raises the question as to what extent the government should step in to help.” He flicked at the proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in the Senate and pointed out that “even bolder policies have been proposed to help local news, such as giving direct payments to news organizations to hire reporters or offering Americans vouchers to spend on local nonprofit media.”
Local news as civic infrastructure? With Democrats controlling the levers of power in Congress, these ideas will at least get a hearing. Whether they’ll come to fruition is another matter altogether. But Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said earlier this spring that local news, “frayed beyond belief,” should be treated as “critical infrastructure” that “needs to be preserved.”
“National news outlets and social media have gotten a lot of attention for contributing to mistrust and disinformation, but local TV news is no less complicit,” Amanda Ripley wrote in this deep dive for The Atlantic last month. Ripley surveyed some experiments by Scripps‘ local stations to improve TV news and rebuild trust — from “increasing the length and complexity of its segments” to “backing away from crime coverage and other cheap thrills.” There’s a lot to think about here…
The “nationalization” problem
“Can local TV news keep politics local?” Matt Grossman of the Niskanen Center posed this question on a recent podcast. Here’s a transcript. Local coverage is “threatened by nationalization,” Grossman said, citing new work by two scholars. In summary: “Daniel Moskowitz finds that local TV news helps citizens learn more about their governors and senators, encouraging split-ticket voting. But Joshua McCrain finds that Sinclair has bought up local stations, increasing coverage of national politics and moving rightward. Local news coverage is in decline but offers one of the major remaining bulwarks against nationalization and polarization.” More here…
The Vallejo Times-Herald’s headline writer was decidedly NOT impartial this week.
Local commercial news media in one-paper towns are obliged to do their best to present a balanced perspective, especially on controversial topics. True objectivity is difficult, but the public’s primary source of news needs to do its very best.
And yet, consider the Times-Herald’s headlines Oct. 13-16, each of which accompanied a sweet photo of the fast-tracked Trump/GOP sham nominee, Amy Coney Barrett:
VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD HEADLINE DEPARTURES FROM ORIGINAL AP HEADLINES
Original AP headline on Oct. 13: “Barrett vows fair approach as justice, Democrats skeptical”
VT-H headline: Barrett vows fair approach
Original AP headline on Oct. 14: “Barrett bats away tough Democratic confirmation probing”
VT-H headline: Barrett unscathed by tough questions
Original AP headline on Oct 16: “GOP pushes Barrett toward court as Democrats decry ‘sham’”
When approached by email, Times-Herald Editor Jack Bungart let me know that staff does not write the paper’s headlines. Their “pagination hub” converts from an Associated Press headline according to “what fits in each situation.”
So who or what is the “pagination hub” serving our friendly staff at the Vallejo Times-Herald? Is there bias at work here? Who, exactly, is responsible for the seemingly partial editing of the AP headlines that came up with these pro-Barrett Times-Herald headlines?!
Come on, Vallejo T-H “pagination hub”. Who are you? In the future, give us a more nuanced and accurate first look at the day’s highly controversial news.
As I read the headline, “Times-Herald staff will work out of Vacaville office,” my heart sank a little. It’s a sad, albeit inevitable, sign of the times to see the Vallejo Times-Herald leave Vallejo.
My relationship with local newspapers began before I could read. Twice a day, the Vallejo papers (morning Times-Herald and evening News-Chronicle) were tossed onto the porch by a kid flying by on his bike. Between the covers of each issue lay a fascinating world of first, pictures and comics and later, articles and ads. As I grew, my favorite stories were society-related. Each baby shower, wedding and anniversary event carried 2-3 pictures, an extensive guest list (using the “Mrs. [husband’s name]” designation for the women) and descriptions of the fashions of the day on display.
There were the columns like Dave Beronio and Marion Devlin. Oh, and the ads — for the Redwood Inn, Levee’s department store, Terry’s Waffle Shop, the Grotto, City of Paris, Stillings toy store, Higgins shoes, Home Bakery, Market Town, Liled’s candy store, Casa de Vallejo, the China Barn, Red Top dairy, the Golden Bubble, Tarantino’s, Helen Lyall’s, the Village, Palby’s, Vallejo Travel, the Elbow Room, Passini’s, and later, on the growing east side of town, Rudy’s supper club, Purity market, Toby Jean’s hamburgers, Gentleman Jim’s, Springhill Foods and Yardbirds.
Over the years, I turned to the Vallejo paper daily for horoscopes, Ann Landers’ sage advice, to catch a movie (at the Rita, then then El Rey, and later at the Cinedome 7), see who was racing at the hardtops, and to check out the newest sounds at Munter Music.
As TV news gained prominence, the morning and evening editions of the Vallejo newspaper were combined into the one evening edition. However, the paper’s strengths of excellent journalists, columnists, photographers and staff were undiminished. The Vallejo Times-Herald gave us in-depth stories about the in-our-backyard Zodiac killings, lurid Associated Press pictures of the Vietnam war along with how our hometown recruits were faring, and extensive coverage of local sports.
We got the big Vallejo stories, like the sinking of the Guitarro, a nuclear submarine, in the Mare Island Channel (for which Vallejo was awarded “Laugh-In’s” ‘Fickle Finger of Fate’), Joey Pallotta’s world-record catch of the largest sturgeon ever out in the Carquinez Strait, and the amazing boosterism of local residents like my Aunt, Donna Jean Hines, to bring the Marine World theme park to Vallejo. We also got the “little” but vital stories, like upcoming class reunions, GVRD summer playground dates, and the annual County Fair prize winners.
The Times-Herald kept me informed as the city leaders tore down our Carnegie Library for an ugly, needed-but-not-right-there senior high-rise and closed lower Georgia street in the first of 37 failed attempts to “save downtown.” I heard they passed on Sunvalley Mall to build Larwin Plaza. Our community college left our community.
The Times-Herald covered local politics, protests, and picnics with equal zeal. It supported local arts organizations and locally-owned businesses, sponsored Little League teams and maintained a staff of crack reporters whose focus was (and has been) relentlessly local — bowling tournaments, Fourth of July parades, water and sewer rate hikes, church socials, car washes, Hal’s Appliance sales, elections, and the heart of any community: Births and deaths.
Vallejo’s diversity was and is its greatest strength. While much coverage was positive — Filipino community Pista Sa Nayon festivals, and (later) homegrown Black hip-hop stars, for example — the racism that stained every aspect of community life (so deep that Black residents had to literally build their own housing development, Country Club Crest, in order to buy a house in Vallejo) was seldom mentioned. The city leaders remained almost exclusively white, male — Mayor Florence Douglas notwithstanding — and (and since the closet was firmly shut, who knows?) straight, long past the Civil Rights and women’s movements and the rise of the fight for LGBTQ rights.
Times continued to change. A failed VTH strike in the ’70s, which birthed the short-lived Vallejo Independent Press, mirrored the nationwide decline of unions, manufacturing and working class-prosperity. Mare Island Naval Base, arguably the lifeblood of the local economy, closed after 125 years. Again and again, the city leaders’ nostalgia for a ’50s-style downtown won out over common sense, and commerce fled to Fairfield, Concord and Vacaville, resulting in even fewer print ads.
With the rise of the internet and the collapse of ad revenue, the Times-Herald, like most print journalism entities, began to shrink in earnest. The paper was sold to a chain, its building on now-Curtola Parkway, with its giant printing press, clocks of the world, darkrooms, news bays and clattering Linotype machines, also sold and eventually demolished. The staff downsized again and again, reporters doubling as photographers, columns and editorials increasingly nationally-syndicated, and local sports the biggest driver of community news.
Yet the Vallejo Times-Herald hung on, covering local arts, politics, education, business, sports and community events. I still subscribe today, from our retirement home in the foothills above Sacramento, to see who died, the specials at Gracie’s Barbecue and who’s appearing (pre-Pandemic) at the Empress. I read the wacky letters to the editor, featuring endless debates among five or so locals whose beefs go as far back as the Hatfields and the McCoys, and whose letters should be serialized so the occasional reader could have even a clue as to what they’re writing about.
I enjoy the latest jewel of artistic creativity otherwise unnoticed in our midst that Richard Freedman illuminates, and Brendan Riley’s periodic chronicles of our more distant past. Sadly — but glad that it is being covered — I keep abreast of the developments in the deaths of Vallejo residents of color at the hands of police that, if not in part for the dogged persistence of Vallejo journalists in continuing to shed light on these events, would not finally be gaining some statewide and even national traction.
The announcement that Vallejo Times-Herald operations are moving to Vacaville marks the end of an era — for journalism and for Vallejo. We all know what happened when the Contra Costa Times became the East Bay Times. Want to know about Oakland? Just pick up the EBT. Concord? Not so much. And local in general, vs. national/world news? Even less.
So I predict I will be learning more about Vacaville, and less about Vallejo, from the VTH (or soon-to-be “Solano Reporter?”) in the future. No offense meant. It’s the way of the world, and I want the VTH to survive in some, even regional, form so that our talented local journalists can continue to work, and so that “USA Today” doesn’t end up our local newspaper!
I guess we were lucky to have a hometown paper survive this long. That said, give me a moment to mourn and mark the passing of an enterprise that has informed and affected my entire sentient life. Maybe not perfect, just like our world, but trying its damndest to fulfill its mission – to reflect one community, at its best, worst and most mundane, for posterity.
Vallejo Times-Herald reporters, editors, circulation and advertising staff, I salute you for your diligence, integrity and commitment to my hometown, Vallejo. Thank you and farewell.
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.
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.)
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, 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