‘A vigorous democracy needs a robust press’
Prior to the internet, local newspapers were the most reliable way for businesses to reach potential customers. The revenue that advertising provided allowed newspapers to employ journalists to report the news and investigate corruption, while selling their product for a cheap price. The growth of the internet eroded that model, with advertising dollars plunging as businesses turned to direct digital marketing to reach customers.
Advertising on newspaper websites has not matched the revenue once produced in the print product. Newspapers were forced to charge more for subscriptions to make up for advertising losses. Readership has plunged for many, forcing newspapers across the country to close or dramatically reduce staffs, lowering the value of the product they produce. The result in many cases is “news deserts,” with no news reporting to inform the public.
On Sept. 14, two award-winning journalists, Walter V. Robinson, of The Boston Globe, and Pamela Constable, of The Washington Post, will discuss these challenges and varying ideas to address them. Robinson, an investigative reporter and editor-at-large at The Boston Globe, led the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation that brought worldwide attention to the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals and subsequent cover-ups. Michael Keaton portrayed Robinson in the film “Spotlight,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2015.
Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk, covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Asia and Latin America. She recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine.
Paul Choiniere, who retired in 2021 as the editorial page editor at The Day, had a chance to discuss with Robinson the crisis facing newspapers and its dire implications for democratic government. The following are highlights from that discussion.
Question: Before we get started, please fill in readers on what are you up to these days, journalistically speaking?
Answer: I'm focusing on three journalism nonprofits: I'm on the board of the New England First Amendment Coalition (and have been for a decade or more). I'm on the board of the New Bedford Light, which is a shining example of how nonprofit journalism can make a difference, especially when the community is willing to fund it. And I am advising the soon-to-publish Plymouth Independent, which, like the Light, is trying to return serious journalism to a community that only has a ghost paper.
Q: A report last year by Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative noted that the newspaper industry had lost more than a quarter of its newspapers and almost 60% of its newsroom employees since 2005. It further found that more than one-fifth of the U.S. population—approximately 70 million Americans—live in areas with little or no access to local news. Many of the newspapers that survived are woefully understaffed. Why should this be of concern to Americans?
A: What you describe is a devastating blow to democracy. You cannot have a vigorous democracy without a free and robust press. That is what our Founders concluded when they wrote the First
Amendment. It is no accident that democratic institutions have been weakened at the same time as the economic collapse of the mainstream news industry. You cannot have an open, transparent and honest government in the darkness. Yet no one covers City Hall anymore.
Q: At the same time local news outlets are struggling, some large national newspapers are thriving? Why the dichotomy?
A: "Some" here equals three. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post, whose digital audiences have grown exponentially since 2016 and Trump. (The Post has lost some ground in Biden's Washington.) There has been no such news dynamic for local news. Advertising revenue, as you know, has nosedived. So too have news staffs. How do you sell a subscription, digital or print, when you don't have the resources to give readers anything of value? If that weren't bad enough, American daily papers, those that are left, are mostly owned by chains whose focus is profits, and not journalism. I picked up a t-shirt at some journalism event that says, "USA Today Network" on the back and "Journalism Matters'' on the front. I wouldn't wear it in public. It is demonstrably false that Gannett-Gatehouse cares about journalism.
Q: How is the Boston Globe doing?
A: Surprisingly well. After the aforementioned three, I believe the Globe may be the only thriving major metro daily. The size of the news staff, about 270, is up. The Globe has about 250,000 digital subscribers, and is owned by a philanthropist who cares about the community and is not in it to make a profit (though I believe that the Globe is profitable).
Q: Is the advertising-revenue model that allowed local newspapers to be sold relatively cheaply, and still have the revenue necessary to support news staffs, irreparably broken? Is a new model, or models, needed?
A: Yes. Success is persuading people that they have a major stake in the civic health of their communities. I've come to believe that the nonprofit news model works best. The mission is pure. The goal is solely an informed public. That is something people will support. And it keeps journalism out of rapacious hands.
Q: Writing for the Washington Post last year, columnist Perry Bacon Jr. wrote: “It’s time to just accept that good local news won’t make anyone much money and will need philanthropic and perhaps even government funding.” Should government funding be on the table?
A: Perhaps. I talked recently with the city manager of a fairly large city. He wanted the city to appropriate funds to keep a news website afloat. Bad idea, for obvious reasons. But it is in the interest of government that citizen be fully informed (though too many people in government do not believe that to be so). How to make it work? California has one possible solution. A year ago, the state approved $25 million in funding for local news. But the state ceded the funding decisions to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, with the provision that the funds be targeted at news organizations that report on underserved communities. These are the very communities that have been disproportionately affected by the wave of newspaper closures.
Q: Those 40 and under grew up with the expectation that information and entertainment could be accessed for free on the internet. They rebel against the idea of paying for digital content, and certainly for local news. How do you overcome that mindset and still find the revenue necessary to pay for professional journalists?
A: To be sure, we created and fed the addictive belief that news should be free, even in a world where nothing is free. We are to blame. But hopefully when the under-40s become older-40s, wisdom will cause them to realize that reliable news is much more valuable than the $5 they put down every morning for a latte.
If You Go
What: “Why Newspapers Still Matter at a Time of Hype, Hate & Social Media Dominance”
Who: Walter V. Robinson, of The Boston Globe, and Pamela Constable, of The Washington Post
When: Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.
Where: The United, 5 Canal St., Westerly
Tickets: $50 at www.literacywashingtoncounty.org/summer-speaker-series. Proceeds benefit Literacy Volunteers of Washington County.
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