GHOSTING THE NEWS
Margaret Sullivan’s first book takes a hard look at the decline of local journalism
Margaret Sullivan in her former office at THE NEWS.
PHOTO BY brendan bannon
Margaret Sullivan talks to Mark Sommer
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Daily newspapers were in big trouble before the pandemic and the loss of revenue it’s causing hasn’t made the survival of local news any more likely. It is a sad and bitter irony that in this time of crisis, we need accurate local reporting more than ever. In Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, former Buffalo News editor-in-chief and current media columnist for the Washington Post Margaret Sullivan looks at local newsrooms and TV studios across America and details some depressing realities. She also explores hopeful, if few, alternatives that may help keep professional reporting alive.
You now cover the national scene on a big stage, and this is your first book; can you explain why you chose this issue, given that you’ve kind of “broken through”?
I wanted to write about something important that I had some expertise in, and this seemed to fit the bill. It draws on my many years at the News, but also includes the national and global situation. Also, I felt like I might be able to make a difference, which is what we all want to do in journalism.
The decline of newspapers is not surprising, but it is startling that local TV news is doing so well.
TV isn’t dependent on the thing that has withered for newspapers: print advertising. It has its transmission fees, it maintains some of its traditional advertising base, and its websites are free to consumers who believe that all information on the internet should be free. Can TV do the kind of granular, accountability coverage that newspapers have traditionally done? In many cases, no.
Is there hope for the Buffalo News?
The News remains one of the most important institutions in Western New York, so I sure hope so. Its work is as important as ever. I’d like to see Western New Yorkers grapple with how deeply it would harm the region if the News didn’t exist or if it became a “ghost newspaper,” with very few reporters. Yes, there is hope but only if enough people recognize that and subscribe.
Can outlets like Investigative Post (IP partners with Spree, as do other local outlets) and public radio stations make up the difference?
The new nonprofit news organizations like Investigative Post can and do make a difference. They are important but, at this point, they can’t entirely fill the gap.
You describe Michigan’s East Lansing Info operation, which started as a volunteer news brigade and became a nonprofit. It focuses mainly on government reporting. Is that sustainable?
Volunteer or low-paid news gathering needs extremely strong leadership and great personal commitment to be worthwhile. The experiment in East Lansing is pretty radical but I love their can-do spirit.
What’s been the effect of COVID-19 on the situation you describe? Seems like people need news desperately, but further loss of ad revenue means papers are more precarious than ever.
The economic fallout of the virus has been devastating for news organizations that were already on the brink. It’s been described as an “extinction event” for many of them. A lot will go out of business. Some already have. Whatever print advertising was left has been almost wiped out, and subscription revenue hasn’t made up the difference.
What do you think about the future of city/regional magazines like Spree?
A lot of them are hurting financially for the same reasons. When the traditional sources of revenue—entertainment, travel, spas, restaurants—aren’t there, it’s very hard to carry on. I hope this will be quick to bounce back, and that these magazines, which are important to a region’s sense of community, will endure.
Is there a future for arts coverage? It seems like it’s always the first to go.
You’re right. This really bothers me, and the loss of this coverage gets less attention than other aspects of this problem. Perhaps we’ll see new all-digital nonprofits spring up to help fill the gap. Again, it all comes down to, how do you pay for it? Somehow, we always seem to find the money to pay for professional sports coverage but not coverage of the arts. That’s regrettable.