The de­struc­tion of lo­cal news

Mar­garet Sul­li­van’s “Ghost­ing the News” ex­am­ines the clo­sure of 2,000 U.S. pa­pers since 2004, and what that means for civic life

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Books - By Jen­nifer Sza­lai The New York Times

What do you call it when a hedge fund buys a lo­cal news­pa­per and squeezes it for rev­enue, lay­ing off edi­tors and re­porters and sell­ing off the pa­per’s down­town head­quar­ters for con­ver­sion into apart­ments, lux­ury con­dos or a bou­tique ho­tel?

The dev­as­ta­tion has be­come com­mon enough that some ob­servers have re­sorted to short­hand for what col­lec­tively amounts to an ex­tinc­tion-level event. One former edi­tor calls it a “har­vest­ing strat­egy”; Mar­garet Sul­li­van, in her new book, “Ghost­ing the News,” calls it “strip-min­ing.” Like the cli­mate emer­gency that Sul­li­van men­tions by way of com­par­i­son, the dec­i­ma­tion of lo­cal news yields two phe­nom­ena that hap­pen to feed off each other: The far­reach­ing ef­fects are cat­a­clysmic, and it’s hard to con­vince a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple that they ought to care.

“Dis­in­for­ma­tion” and “fake news” bring to mind schem­ing op­er­a­tives, Rus­sian troll farms and noisy pro­pa­ganda; sto­ries about them are tit­il­lat­ing enough to garner plenty of at­ten­tion. But what Sul­li­van writes about is a “real-news prob­lem” — the shut­ter­ing of more than 2,000 Amer­i­can newspapers since 2004, and the cre­ation of “news deserts,” or en­tire coun­ties with no lo­cal news out­lets at all.

She be­gins her book with the ex­am­ple of a 2019 story from The Buf­falo News about a sub­ur­ban po­lice chief who re­ceived an un­ex­plained $100,000 pay­out when he abruptly re­tired. The ar­ti­cle didn’t win any awards or even ap­pear on the front page, Sul­li­van writes. “It merely was the kind of day-in-and-day-out lo­cal re­port­ing that makes se­cre­tive town of­fi­cials un­happy.”

“Merely” and “day-in-and­day-out”; Sul­li­van also de­scribes the ar­ti­cle as “rou­ti­nee­nough fare.” “Ghost­ing the News” is a brisk and pointed trib­ute to painstak­ing, or­di­nary and valu­able work. As the me­dia colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post and the former pub­lic edi­tor for The New York Times, Sul­li­van has spent most of the past decade writ­ing for a na­tional au­di­ence, but for 32 years be­fore that she worked at The Buf­falo News, start­ing as a sum­mer in­tern and even­tu­ally be­com­ing the news­pa­per’s edi­tor.

Sul­li­van re­calls the flush days when the pa­per boasted a news­room fully staffed by jour­nal­ists who could com­bine their call­ing with a ca­reer. Then came the in­ter­net, which si­phoned off at­ten­tion and rev­enue; after that, the del­uge of the 2008 fi­nan­cial crisis, which swept away the ves­tiges of print ad­ver­tis­ing. Sul­li­van cut the pay­roll of the pa­per by of­fer­ing buy­outs. She got rid of the full-time art critic and elim­i­nated the Sun­day magazine — “a par­tic­u­larly wrench­ing de­ci­sion be­cause my then-hus­band was the magazine’s edi­tor.”

The Buf­falo News was owned by War­ren Buf­fett’s

Berk­shire Hath­away un­til the be­gin­ning of this year, when Buf­fett de­clared it was time for him to leave the news­pa­per in­dus­try and sold his port­fo­lio of 31 dailies and 49 week­lies. Buf­fett said he be­lieves in the

STEPHEN M. KATZ/STAFF FILE

The Vir­ginian-Pi­lot — bought by what’s now Tribune (it­self now al­most one-third owned by a hedge fund) — saw its build­ing in down­town Nor­folk sold and, as of May, va­cated. The place will be­come apart­ments. This won’t be the first time any­one paid to live at the copy desk: In the early ’80s, copy edi­tors for the Pi­lot’s sis­ter pa­per, The Ledger-Star, posted a sign: “CAR­DIAC CABIN.”

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