Yes, Fake News Is a Problem. But There’s a Real News Problem, Too.

What do you name it when a hedge fund buys a native newspaper and squeezes it for income, shedding editors and reporters and promoting off the paper’s downtown headquarters for conversion into luxurious condos or a boutique lodge?

The devastation has turn out to be widespread sufficient that some observers have resorted to shorthand for what collectively quantities to an extinction-level occasion. One former editor calls it a “harvesting strategy”; Margaret Sullivan, in her new e-book, “Ghosting the News,” calls it “strip-mining.” Like the local weather emergency that Sullivan mentions by the use of comparability, the decimation of native information yields two phenomena that occur to feed off one another: The far-reaching results are cataclysmic, and it’s onerous to persuade a vital variety of those that they must care.

“Disinformation” and “fake news” recall to mind scheming operatives, Russian troll farms and noisy propaganda; tales about them are titillating sufficient to garner loads of consideration. But what Sullivan writes about is a “real-news problem” — the shuttering of greater than 2,000 American newspapers since 2004, and the creation of “news deserts,” or whole counties with no native information retailers in any respect.

She begins her e-book with the instance of a 2019 story from The Buffalo News about a suburban police chief who acquired an unexplained $100,000 payout when he abruptly retired. The article didn’t win any awards and even seem on the entrance web 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-and-day-out”; Sullivan additionally describes the article as “routine-enough fare.” “Ghosting the News” is a brisk and pointed tribute to painstaking, abnormal and invaluable work. As the media columnist for The Washington Post and the previous public editor for The New York Times, Sullivan has spent a lot of the previous decade writing for a nationwide viewers, however for 32 years earlier than that she labored at The Buffalo News, beginning as a summer time intern and ultimately changing into the newspaper’s editor.

Credit…Michael Benabib

Sullivan recollects the flush days when the paper boasted a newsroom totally staffed by journalists who may mix their calling with a profession. Then got here the web, which siphoned off consideration and income; after that, the deluge of the 2008 monetary disaster, which swept away the vestiges of print promoting. Sullivan lower the payroll of the paper by providing buyouts. She removed the full-time artwork critic and eradicated the Sunday journal — “a particularly wrenching decision because my then-husband was the magazine’s editor.”

The Buffalo News was owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway till the start of this yr, when Buffett declared it was time for him to depart the newspaper trade and offered his portfolio of 31 dailies and 49 weeklies. Buffett mentioned he believes within the significance of journalism, however he doesn’t take into account himself a philanthropist. He obtained into the enterprise as a result of it made cash, with fats revenue margins within the good years reaching 30 %. When he purchased The Buffalo News in 1977, he determined that the town may maintain just one every day, and he knocked out the competitors till his was the final paper standing. A monopoly newspaper was like an unregulated toll bridge: With a loyal and captive market, he may elevate charges every time he needed.

Advertisers could have been peddling baubles or junk meals, however their money funded severe journalism — the sort that might afford to ship a reporter to, say, each municipal board assembly. “People knew that,” the previous editor of the as soon as mighty Youngstown Vindicator advised Sullivan, “and they behaved.” This watchdog perform had tangible advantages for subscribers and nonsubscribers alike. “When local reporting waned,” Sullivan writes, “municipal borrowing costs went up.” Local information retailers present the due diligence that bondholders usually depend on. Without the specter of a public shaming, corruption is freer to flourish.

Sullivan surveys the choice fashions which have sprung up in response to journalism’s ecosystem collapse. There’s the nonprofit reporting outfit ProPublica, and a “news brigade” of volunteer journalists in Michigan. Sullivan’s personal employer was acquired by Jeff Bezos in 2013 for $250 million. “Jeff Bezos has not attempted to influence coverage at The Washington Post,” she writes, though billionaire owners aren’t always so hands-off. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the well-respected Review-Journal in Las Vegas, which was known for its investigative pieces on the casino industry, and leaned on its staff to produce puff pieces about his properties instead. Adelson turned the watchdog into a lap dog.

The situation is so dire, Sullivan says, that she entertains what was once unthinkable — the possibility of government-subsidized journalistic outlets. She calls the argument for government help “not unreasonable,” even if she hasn’t been entirely convinced yet. Her attempts to strike a hopeful note can sound unsatisfying because of how problematic all the solutions are. Nonprofit start-ups have the benefit of being “nimbler,” Sullivan says, though what does nimbler often mean in practice? A non-unionized newsroom staffed by 24-year-olds who can be paid junior-level salaries and, unlike veteran journalists three decades older, wouldn’t necessarily be ruined by a layoff?

Sullivan is left to highlight the essential work that local reporters do, emphasizing how The Palm Beach Post and The Miami Herald continued to pursue the story of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking long after others had decided that the abuse scandal had “gone stale.” More recently, local journalists recorded the influx of unidentified federal troops into Portland, Ore., where they were seizing and detaining people without telling them why or what was happening to them; the example was too late to be included in Sullivan’s book, and it only goes to show how critical and relentless the need is for reporters on the ground.

“Ghosting the News” concludes with a soaring quote from the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci about “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will,” but the local reporter in Sullivan follows it up with a more immediate analogy: Even if no one seems to be coming to the rescue while your house is on fire, you still have to “get out your garden hose and bucket, and keep acting as if the fire trucks are on the way.”

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