In January I wrote, “As bad as the decline at some newspapers and news outlets already is, things might get exponentially worse soon.”
“Exponentially worse” arrived last week.
A bad-for-the-industry merger of two major chains was completed, a likely bankruptcy is likely for another news corporation, and potential control of a metropolitan daily by a hedge fund infamous for strip-mining newspaper assets was announced.
The merger was between Gannett and GateHouse. The combined company reportedly will now cut $300 million from its budget. That means fewer reporters, editors and staff after a decade of already implemented draconian job cuts at both corporations.
The once-mighty McClatchy newspaper chain is near bankruptcy. The group went into debt to expand its holdings in 2006, kicking off an ever-steeper downward financial spiral.
And the Chicago Tribune is now partly owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has scooped up controlling interests in more than 50 newspapers small and large, gutting newsrooms and community news coverage to boost profits.
These and other developments were lamented in a column published in the Washington Post one week ago today, by media columnist Margaret Sullivan.
“Will we point back to November 2019 as the day the music died for the news industry?” she wrote, quoting University of Missouri journalism professor Tom Warhover.
But even as these tragic, big-business corporate machinations further cripple an already wounded print news industry, an odd ray of sunshine about the positive effects of small-town newspapering beamed through the gloom from the north.
The publisher of the 500-subscriber Skagway News in Skagway, Alaska announced he is willing to give away his paper to keep it publishing. During the Klondike Gold Rush the town had four newspapers, whittled down to one, 100-plus years later.
Skagway still has a seasonal gold rush — tourists. As many as 1 million cruise ship passengers visit during the summer. Their dollars boost advertising revenues just enough to keep the newspaper fiscally afloat in a town of 1,000 fulltime, year-round residents.
But no rapacious hedge fund or empire building media moguls should dare try to add the Skagway News to their corporate trophy cases.
“The only way this paper has a long-term future, and anything that I’ve ever seen that works with small-town weeklies or bi-weeklies is where the small-town editor owns, lives and are in the community,” Publisher Larry Persily said. “And that’s what this needs.”
Persily’s point about why small-town newspapering survives is, as the British say, spot on.
Local newspapers remain a stalwart provider of news and information people want and need in communities. And they are generally trusted sources of that information and news, too.
Even a cursory review of the extensive news and opinion coverage the Finger Lakes Times provided about recent regional elections provides a good case in point.
If FLT readers chose to do a deep dive into the candidates and issues, it was all there. Letters pro and con were carefully sequestered to keep politics away from other reader concerns.
But during the campaign leading up to November’s voting, the rest of the newspaper kept up its focus on the community, continuing to publish the comings and goings of governments, social organizations, sports, churches and individuals.
As grim as the picture seems for media giants and corporations, smaller communities and their newspapers — focused sharply on local issues and people — provide the best hope for the future of journalism and the communities and readers they serve.