Outrages & Insights
Journalism continues to face a perfect storm
"Local journalism in the United States is in crisis" says Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and former editor of the Buffalo News.
Photo courtesy of Margaret Sullivan
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.
Local news is in a free fall.
Across the nation, daily newspapers and local television stations are losing readers and viewers. Newspapers have lost half their readership, revenues, and journalists since their glory days.
It’s no better here in Buffalo. When I joined the Buffalo News in 1986, the paper had a newsroom staff of over 200; it’s now under 100. Weekly circulation peaked in the early nineties at over 300,000; it’s now under 100,000. Back in the day, the News cleared $1 million a week; last year, it lost money.
The future isn’t looking any better. Only thirteen percent of Western New Yorkers prefer print publications as their source of local news, according to a survey recently published by the Pew Research Center. Television is the medium of choice (forty-eight percent), followed by online (thirty-four percent). Radio was preferred by four percent. Print’s audience is dying off—literally.
Print newspaper readers are disproportionately older, and the younger generation isn’t interested. Consider another Pew survey, this one a national sampling, that found only two percent of adults under thirty often turn to print to get their news, versus sixty-three percent who turn to websites and social media platforms.
Here’s the problem with all of this: newspapers have historically generated the bulk of local journalism, everything from sweeping investigations to granular coverage of town councils, school boards, and high school sports. As newspapers lose revenue and reporters, a lot of that coverage goes away. “Online news sites, as well as some TV newsrooms and cable access channels, are working hard to keep local reporting alive, but these are taking root far more slowly than newspapers are dying,” concludes the Poynter Institute, a news media think tank and training center.
Daily newspapers are working to transition to the online world, and account for a portion of news-related website traffic. But publishers are finding it a tough transition. “Local journalism in the United States is in crisis,” Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and former editor of the Buffalo News, tells me. “It’s one of the most troubling things going on in our society right now—a much worse threat to democracy than, for example, President Trump’s attacks on the press as ‘fake news’ and the ‘enemy of the people,’ troubling as those are.”
The problem is, what people living in a democratic society don’t know can hurt them, and there’s a lot less local journalism being produced. “Local journalism is still fairly well trusted as a media source in a nation that doesn’t trust much, or agree on much,” Sullivan adds. “It’s one of the ways we have a basis in facts and reality that we need to function as citizens. Without it, not only will corrupt politicians flourish, but we won’t have even as much agreement as we have now, which isn’t much.”
The role of local television coverage is often overlooked in the discussion, even though stations collectively command a larger audience than newspapers in most markets. Stations are producing more content than ever, up to nine hours a day: morning, noon, and night. Although local television news viewership is on the decline across the nation, its staffing level is stable and finances healthier, due in part to substantial transmission fees paid by local cable companies. Television stations can provide the public with solid “news of the day.” But because of the limitations of the medium, TV stations aren’t producing much by way of in-depth investigations or hyper-local coverage of government and business.
Is there a solution? “No one knows. And there may not be one,” Sullivan says. She’d like to see people subscribe to their local newspaper. And she sees room for new players. “Certainly nonprofit newsrooms, funded by caring citizens and local philanthropists, will be a part of the solution if there is one,” Sullivan notes.
Indeed, nearly 200 nonprofit news organizations—including Investigative Post, which I edit—and several hundred for-profit ventures have opened up shop around the country over the past decade. Almost all are small operations and many struggle financially. And while they can produce quality work and fill a portion of the void created by the downsizing of local newspapers, they are no substitutes.
These nascent newsrooms will continue to grow in size and influence. In recent months, Facebook, Google, and the Knight Foundation have collectively pledged about $1 billion to help them grow their operations and provide their readers with more local news. The money is bound to make a difference. Just how much has yet to be determined.
In the meantime, the quantity and quality of local news coverage suffers, along with countless communities across the country who need more from their news providers than they’re receiving.