When a big city newspaper is gutted, local news suffers most
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I wrote my first column for the New York Daily News 10 years ago. It was August, and a little-known Alaska governor had just been tapped as John McCain’s vice presidential candidate.
I’d bugged an editor there for months, as hungry young writers do, for an opportunity to write. Finally, the dozens of pitches — and good timing — paid off. He asked me to write 700 words on this woman Sarah Palin, and he needed it in an hour.
Thus began the second most important romance of my life, besides marrying my husband: my relationship with the New York Daily News.
I’ve written hundreds of columns: about culture, about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, about abortion, about liberalism run amok, about Donald Trump. It’s true that the Daily News is a left-leaning paper, but they’ve never shut down a right-wing viewpoint, and I have no doubt they’d have kept running me even if I hadn’t turned out to be an anti-Trump conservative.
On Monday, Tronc slashed the New York Daily News editorial staff by half. My paper, winner of 11 Pulitzer Prizes, including one just last year with ProPublica for public service, was essentially gutted.
The news of the layoffs hit like a sucker punch. Not because it was the first — far from it. Or because it means journalism is dying. Plenty of media outlets and other businesses have to make painful cuts to save and strengthen their products, and I’m resigned to that being the case at the Daily News, despite my sadness.
But it feels particularly disorienting and disturbing considering the desperate need for good journalism now more than ever.
Of course, that is undeniably true because of who occupies the White House. President Trump has waged war on the media for years, and it’s had an alarmingly effective impact.
But it’s not the coverage of Trump, nor Washington, nor politics that is suffering — believe me, we’ll be fine — it’s local news.
As NPR writes, “The move now to gut the Daily News’ newsroom will be a blow to local watchdog journalism in the nation’s largest city. It has retained a punch in local news at a time when The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have retreated from metro coverage.”
Indeed, this trend is nationwide. On the same day of the layoffs, the Pew Research Center published a new report on newspaper layoffs. More than one-third of U.S. newspapers had at least one round of layoffs between January 2017 and April 2018.
Newspaper employment across the country declined from around 46,000 to 39,000.
To put that in perspective, that’s fewer people than the depressed coal-mining industry employs. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, it’s fewer than roofers (116,410), telemarketers (215,290) and fitness trainers and aerobic instructors (257,410).
What does this employment squeeze mean for local news? Less of it, for one. And that has huge consequences.
An incredible new study by the Columbia Journalism Review puts that in no uncertain terms: When a newspaper shutters, local government waste skyrockets.
“We conducted a systematic study of newspaper closures and government borrowing costs in the United States, for the period ranging from 1996 to 2015,” the study reports. “Our evidence indicates that a lack of local newspaper coverage has serious financial consequences for local governments, and that alternative news sources are not necessarily filling the gaps.”
Digital media can do important things print cannot. But one thing it’s been relatively lousy at is holding local government to account.
I have the privilege of writing about presidential campaigns, domestic policy, war and revolution. That’s important, and I take it seriously. But there’s no substitute for local news, and it’s my sincere hope that vacuums left by layoffs like these around the country will be filled — and quickly — by new, sustainable ways of covering your neighborhood, your towns and your cities.
We’ll all be better for it.
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