With Thinned-Out Newsrooms, Local Papers Struggle to Do Stories That Lure Readers

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

These are relatively good times for the nation’s top two newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post. As I wrote recently, both have snagged a series of scoops on the Trump administration in what is shaping up as an old-school newspaper war. Some are calling it a new golden age of journalism.

This journalistic excellence has paid off in more ways than one. Both papers were awarded hard-news Pulitzers for 2017: the Times for tough reporting on Vladimir Putin, the Post for digging into Trump’s charitable giving. And the aggressive newsgathering is also boosting the bottom line. Both papers reported spikes in digital subscriptions in the wake of Trump’s election, and both appear to be navigating the choppy waters of the 21st century news business relatively well. As newspaper analyst Craig Huber told the Times, “The only future for newspapers is at the high end of quality journalism. That and only that are what people are willing to pay for.”

Therein lies the problem for the rest of the country’s roughly 1,300 daily papers. Already weakened by the decades-old tumble in print circulation and advertising revenue, many small- and medium-sized local papers are also struggling to generate significant revenue from digital subscriptions and ads. The upshot of all this financial turmoil has been tens of thousands of layoffs at newsrooms nationwide in recent years.

At the same time, large newspaper chains have been gobbling up local papers, resulting in still more consolidations and layoffs. Recently I was visiting my brother in Milwaukee, where the city’s paper of record, the Journal Sentinel, was bought out by the Gannett chain. Over beers at a local pub, my brother complained about how the paper had gotten steadily thinner, with fewer local stories and more wire service copy. He was considering canceling his subscription.

Just days after I got back home to Pennsylvania came news that our local paper, the Bucks County Courier Times, had been bought by the Gatehouse Media conglomerate, ending nearly eight decades of local ownership by the Calkins family. Will this mean more layoffs in the Courier Times’ already thinned-out newsroom? I have no idea. But that’s what often happens when large chains snap up local papers.

All of which leads me back to the dilemma facing local papers: How can they do the kind of quality journalism that attracts paying readers when their newsrooms have been gutted, and when the reporters who are left are being asked to not just cover stories, but maintain blogs, shoot digital video and so on?

I don’t know the answer. I do know that the country needs strong local newspapers as much as it needs The New York Times and the Washington Post. And papers that continue to cut their newsrooms to the bone risk rendering themselves irrelevant.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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