The news desert hits home

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For the last few years I have been preaching about the plight of journalism, banging the drum to sound the alarm for anyone who would listen.

I have repeatedly pleaded for all of us to support our local newspapers. I have brought attention to mass layoffs, restructurings and sales in the industry. I have lamented what the vultures have done to community newspapers across the country.

For the most part, like many others who take on this fight, I’ve failed to make much of a dent. And the losses keep coming.

Just this year (so far): CNN cut 100 jobs in the beginning of the May. The entire staff of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans was laid off — 161 jobs. The Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off 41 in March. Vice Media shed 250 jobs. McClatchy, 450. Verizon, the parent company of Yahoo, AOL and HuffPost? Nearly 800. Gannett? 450. 200 at Buzzfeed. 43 at The Dallas Morning News. GateHouse continues to shed staff.

“It’s estimated that between 2014 and 2017, 5,000 journalism jobs disappeared.” — Business Insider

Now that trend hits close to home — the area where I grew up and cut my teeth in the industry. The Reading Eagle Company, a family-run business of 234 employees that owned The Reading Eagle, a newspaper with a reported circulation of 37,000 daily and 50,000 on Sundays, was forced to file for bankruptcy protection in March. Included in the portfolio: radio station WEEU, the weekly South Schuylkill News, a production company and a commercial printer. Put up for sale, the only company to post a qualifying bid by the May 15 deadline was MediaNews Group.

If “MediaNews Group” is a new one for you, don’t be fooled. If you follow this column, you’ll know it better as Digital First Media, most recently in the news over a failed hostile takeover bid for Gannett. You could say a company’s reputation precedes it when philly.com uses “Newspaper-killing” in a headline.

I’ve written about them before. DFM owns the newspapers that form the news cluster surrounding Philadelphia, including The Mercury in Pottstown, where I worked in the late 1990s. As a reminder, that reputation philly.com spoke of is one of cost-cutting, skeleton staffs and asset stripping. The Mercury, for instance, no longer has a physical footprint in Pottstown, unless you count the Pottstown reporter’s home office. The newspaper building was left to rot, and is now being sold. It’s a tried-and-true DFM method of operation.

Now it adds an office in downtown Reading, a printing plant and a radio station to its list of sale-able assets. In the process, two union contracts were dumped. The radios station’s FCC license was left on the table, and without a savior, the “Voice of Berks County” since 1932 will go silent. 

All the while, DFM/MNG’s parent, hedge fund Alden Global Capital, manages to do what is said to be impossible in our industry — make money — at the expense of providing its properties with the resources to give the community a credible newspaper.

And to be clear, this isn’t some little backwater town. Reading has a population of nearly 90,000, the fifth-largest city in Pennsylvania. Berks County has a population in the neighborhood of 400,000. All communities that look to have a very good chance of joining the ranks of the news deserts.

“We define a news desert as: a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

— Penelope (Penny) Muse Abernathy

Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina

To be clear, the industry does not lie blameless. It aided in bringing about this climate through bad investment decisions, poor planning and an inability to adapt. It gave the product away for free to a point that the consumer feels free news is a right. It allowed the Facebooks and Craigslists to corner the classified market. It has failed to get the message out about its predicament to a point that the public is unable to perceive the direness of the situation. And we will all be the worse for it.

Research has shown the cost of governing rises without a watchdog due to lack of scrutiny. Civic engagement wanes. And newspapers don’t have to be shut down for it to happen. Many communities have newspapers in name only, “ghost” newspapers filled by copy sharing with other properties and wire copy, but lacking in resources to adequately cover their own communities. I’ve watched first hand as local governments take advantage of understaffing to make decisions behind closed doors, and the community none the wiser.

It’s already happening in southeastern Pennsylvania, in the community where I grew up. As a kid, my school district and community were covered in part by the Daily Local News in West Chester, The Reading Eagle and Reading Times, the Daily Record in Coatesville, and to some extent, The Mercury. There was also a weekly, the Tri-County. Now, all those papers are part of DFM/MNG, and The Record, where I started my career, is long gone, as is the Reading Times. 

Last week there was a primary election in Pennsylvania, and a friend was running for school director in my school district. Obviously, I was interested in the results. Sadly, the only place I could get them was from Chester County government. I couldn’t find one story. My father, an election judge, said turnout was shockingly light. Small wonder.

The tide will turn. It must. Local news is necessary for a functioning democracy. Nature abhors a vacuum, and someone will figure out a way to do it. But I fear what we, as a society, will have to lose to get to there.