How do you support your local newspaper when its owners are destroying it?

“Subscribe to a local newspaper, even if you aren’t going to read it.” Because you’ll be helping rescue democracy.

A variation of this statement has been made a lot lately, when major national stories highlight the impact of a local newspaper’s reporting — like the Indianapolis Star’s work in getting justice for more than 150 sexual abuse victims. Or when we hear about financial troubles at a newspaper that’s done important public accountability reporting — like the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail filing for bankruptcy.

Amen! I guess.

It’s complicated. Increasingly, your typical daily newspaper is owned by someone who is actively destroying the local journalism we want to preserve. Sending them money won’t lead to more local reporting. It might help preserve some existing reporting jobs. Most likely, it will provide a vulture capital hedge fund with additional profits as it milks what’s left of that newspaper on the way to shutting it down.

That’s not meant to be an anti-capitalism or anti-corporatism or contrarian stance, or a waving of the white flag when it comes to saving local newspapers. It’s information crucial to helping us understand how to save local news, if not those specific newspapers.

From http://newspaperownership.com/threat-of-news-deserts/

The San Jose Mercury News, still one of the biggest-circulation local newspapers in the country and located in a place of tremendous wealth, has gone from 440 newsroom employees in the 1990s to 39 represented by the Guild today.

That’s at a major metro. Many smaller chain-owned daily newspapers across the country have gone from 25-plus newsroom employees to literally 3 or 4 over just the past five years. They’re not really functioning as local news outlets any longer, just wrappers for preprint advertising.

Blaming that on “lack of support from readers” ignores what those newspapers’ no-journalism-business-background hedge fund owners have done to harvest short-term profits.

Digital disruption might be the oxygen, but companies such as Alden Global Capital’s Digital First Media and Fortress Investment Group’s Gatehouse have poured the gasoline and lit the matches.

Winning Pulitzers on the way to bankruptcy

In a recent Boston Globe story about Gatehouse’s bid to buy the Boston Herald, Bill Church, the company’s VP of news, said that he’s “pissed off” by criticism that its newspapers are “cookie cutter” and that the company doesn’t care about the quality of journalism they produce. He blamed newsroom cuts on the general condition of the newspaper industry.

He’s right that many of Gatehouse’s 130-plus daily newspapers employ great editors (some of the best that I personally know, actually) and reporters, and are doing award-winning and impactful journalism.

Gannett, notorious for cutting newsrooms to maintain large profit margins for shareholders, has produced work such as the USA Gymnastics expose in Indianapolis and the Cincinatti Enquirer’s “Seven Days of Heroin.”

Understaffed newsrooms in Digital First Media’s Bay Area News Group and Los Angeles News Group have won Pulitzers in recent years.

Church himself is about as good a steward of quality journalism as you’d want overseeing a company’s news division. But he’s ultimately limited by the ownership structure of his company. (Believe me, I’ve been there.)

Gatehouse does have a cookie cutter formula. It makes steep newsroom cuts at every family-owned newspaper it gobbles up (its latest acquisition is the storied Register-Guard of Eugene, Oregon), and will keep cutting to maintain profits until there’s nothing left. No amount of awards will stop those cuts.

But before we draw a black-and-white distinction between the virtue of local owners and chains, let’s acknowledge that at this point, any local owner selling to Gatehouse knows exactly what’s going to happen next. There’s a well-established playbook.

So what’s a supporter of local journalism to do?

You care about the health of our democracy. You care about your community. You believe vigilant, quality local journalism is essential to both. But your local newspaper is owned by someone who doesn’t share any of those concerns, at least in the way they operate the business, and it’s definitely having an impact.

Here are a few things you can do to help:

  1. Subscribe, sure, but be a noisy subscriber. You might have plenty of access to local news without a subscription, and giving these companies your money might do nothing to increase or even preserve local journalism resources. Subscribe anyway. A reporter at the Denver Post, whose newsroom has been slashed by Digital First Media while winning Pulitzers over the past five or so years, made a convincing case for reader support recently while acknowledging that it was going to feed a hedge fund’s thirst for profits. Subscribe as a statement of support for the work local journalists, not the company, are doing. But be an engaged subscriber — telling the company as often as you can why you are spending your money and what you expect as a reader. Do it in public as well as in private. Your local paper probably doesn’t have an ombudsman. Be part of crowdsourcing that role.
  2. Support individual journalists. “Journalism companies are dead. Long live journalists.” Take time to tell your local reporters and editors that you appreciate what they’re doing. Odds are they’re probably not loving working for that hedge fund, on top of all of the normal stress that comes with being a journalist these days. Help them report their stories. Be constructive in your criticism. Instead of “how could you have missed this story, or ignored this community voice,” say, “can I introduce you to this new source who might be able help you?” And as a subscriber, demand that the company treat them well.
  3. Support independent local news sites. Independent online news organizations have emerged all over the country to fill the gaps in local journalism left by the decline of newspapers and to give voice to communities who were never well-served by legacy media in the first place. LION, the nonprofit I help lead, has 200 members, both for-profit and nonprofit, in 43 states, and the Institute for Nonprofit News represents a similar number of independent publishers. In some cases, they’re general interest news sites doing all or most of what a traditional newspaper used to do for their community. Others are covering niche topics within a local area in greater depth than newspapers were ever able to provide, and are complementing, more than competing with, the work that’s being done by what’s left of the local daily.
  4. Start your own independent local news effort. The Gannetts and Gatehouses of the world won’t be going back into local newspaper markets to restore reporter and editor positions that have been cut. It will be up to individual communities to take responsibility for their local information and journalism needs. That’s us, especially those of us with backgrounds in or understanding of journalism. It’s not an easy endeavor. An understanding and commitment to the revenue side of the journalism business is required. But such efforts will be essential to the local news ecosystem regardless of what happens to the newspapers whose owners we love to hate.