By TOM HONIG
Back in what now seems like the heyday of newspapers — like the 1990s — journalists like me would sound off about the future of the business, and we would generally argue that as long as we kept doing good work, a successful future was guaranteed.
It didn’t work out that way
Community newspapers aren’t what they used to be. Many have folded. Most others have maybe one-tenth the staff that they did 20 years ago.
The reaction to that from people like me is frustration that borders on outrage. And as good reporters, we started looking for a villain. To some, the villain was easy to find — the business people that owned the paper. Some publishers just waved the white flag and went out of business. A significant number sold out to the hedge funds — the embodiment of evil for a lot of us.
It was those hedge funds that figured out how cut staff and trim resources to pull profits out of the business even as circulation dropped and advertising plummeted. Good journalism took a back seat while good reporters and editors lost their jobs. Coverage suffered; community meetings went uncovered and in some cases, investigation of wrongdoing slowed or even ceased.
Of course, it’s more than just the journalists that were hurt. One can argue that civic responsibility goes out the window when local news disappears. As readership drops, so must civic knowledge. As news coverage decreases, people might still know that, say, crime is up, but they may not know that the local city council actually might be doing something about it. That’s because nobody covered the meeting.
But the thirst for news remains. But now instead of reading curated news, people have turned to social media or national media for their information. As we all know, social media is like the Wild West, with truth doing battle with rumor and disinformation. In newsrooms of old, we used to have an ironic saying when a great rumor got disproved: “Another great story ruined by oververification!”
Or, as Mark Twain supposedly said: “A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
The question remains: is it all the hedge funds’ fault? Are they the true villains? The answer, of course, is more complicated. And as bad as the budget-cutters are, the answer is more likely found on the comics page of long ago. It was the great Walt Kelly and his comic strip Pogo, that said it best. “We’ve met the enemy and he is us!”
Here is Exhibit A. In an article for Bloomberg New Service, Joe Nocera recently profiled the former owner of the Reading, Pa., Eagle. Here’s what he said:
“ You sometimes hear journalists saying that if only their paper’s owner had beefed up the staff, had given reporters more time to do better stories, had made the paper indispensable to its community, maybe the economic decline of the paper could have been averted. What is instructive — and discouraging — about the Reading Eagle is that is exactly what (chief executive (Peter) Barbey did.
“He bet that good journalism could keep the Eagle solvent. And he bet wrong.”
Nocera goes on to tell the story of Barbey, who took over the Eagle in 2011, and committed himself to maintaining editorial quality
But by 2016, things went bad.
Reports Nocera: “Quarterly circulation declines accelerated. And as circulation declined, so did the Eagle’s ad revenue. In 2017 the grocery stores stopped printing inserts in the Eagle and switched to direct mail. The drugstores stopped advertising, as did the car dealers.”
“Both the Eagle’s subscribers and its advertisers were gravitating to the internet, especially Facebook. Using Facebook, advertisers could target Reading consumers for a fraction of what an ad cost in the Eagle. Subscribers, realizing that they could get all the Reading news they needed via Facebook, stopped paying $180 a year for the newspaper.”
The story ends poignantly. Facing the worst, Barbey and the ownership sold the paper. To the Media News Group. Owned by Alden Capital, a hedge fund that owns papers across the country.
And yes, layoffs have followed.