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
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
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.”