My old newspaper boss isn’t shy about warning that local dailies here in Northwest Washington are turning into ghosts — ghost newspapers, existing in name but no longer having the staff or the commitment to cover local and regional news.
That’s not the fault of hard-working, underpaid journalists. It’s a national crisis that’s been accelerating at warp speed since 1990, when newspaper revenue began to crater because the internet eliminated want ads and much of print retail advertising. Frank Blethen, the 75-year-old publisher of The Seattle Times, is trying to address the erosion in local news that he fears threatens democracy.
Blethen, who represents the fourth generation of a family which has published the Times since 1896, won Editor and Publisher Magazine’s Publisher of the Year in 2020. In a recent talk to Times retirees and in a Salish Current interview, he said he’s managed to shore up his own struggling paper and is working with Washington’s congressional delegation to improve newspaper health everywhere. He launched a Save The Free Press Initiative in 2019.
A host of solutions are being considered, including the encouragement of nonprofit news websites such as this one. Other ideas include direct government grants to keep traditional newsrooms functioning, newspaper employee tax credits, grants for local businesses that advertise in local newspapers, forgivable government loans, or tax credits for donating a newspaper to a community nonprofit.
Local newsroom survival is a personal issue for me. My first newspaper job was at the Bellingham Herald in 1973. Since then Whatcom County’s population has tripled and the Herald’s print circulation has declined by two-thirds. Like hundreds of dailies across the United States, the paper has been hollowed. So have other papers I worked at: the Seattle Times, Vancouver Columbian and Everett Herald.
A melting iceberg
Early in my career, reporting for a newspaper felt like working at a public utility, because they circulated so widely and had such a reliable advertising base. Every community had one, and often more than one. Some readers resented their power, but newsrooms tried to provide balance and objectivity.
That institutional weight has melted like an iceberg.
Since July, Bellingham’s daily is owned by a New Jersey hedge fund called Chatham Asset Management, which also owns 49% of The Seattle Times. It got these properties because it bought the family-owned McClatchy newspaper chain, which declared bankruptcy. Other Chatham properties include The News Tribune in Tacoma, the Olympian, the Tri-City Herald, and two-thirds of British Columbia’s Vancouver Sun.
While Chatham is a rarity in the business world in being willing to invest in newspapers at all, its acquisition of Canada’s largest newspaper chain in 2016 was followed by staff cuts, closed newspapers, reduced salaries – and bonuses for a few key executives.
Unfortunately, layoffs and profit-taking have been the fate of newspapers for decades, as investors gobble low-valued assets in a dying industry. Family newspapers were typically first bought out by newspaper chains, and chains by hedge funds with no ties to journalism. It’s a grim process reminiscent of an African lion kill being devoured in turn by hyenas, vultures and insects.
No publication is immune. Chatham also acquired the tabloid National Enquirer, which may be on its last legs after losing 90% of its circulation the last two decades.
The Skagit Valley Herald was acquired by Adams Publishing Group in 2017, replacing Pioneer News Group with a fairly secretive company called Adams Publishing of Minneapolis.
The Adams family is said to be worth nearly $1 billion, and the family patriarch got his start by founding the recreational vehicle company Camping World and community banks. While Adams executives said they aim for a hefty 15% profit margin, they were at least credited by journalism’s Poynter Institute in 2017 with doing a better job than rivals in leaving newsrooms intact.
That didn’t prevent the Herald from cutting reporter hours to 30 hours a week earlier this year, later restored to 35.
The relentless concentration has made local dailies thinner, discouraging subscribers and driving them to the internet. This has benefited national newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The Times counts 3 million subscribers to various digital products and employs a staggering 1,700 journalists.
Bias and polarization
But the internet has also allowed creation of a host of openly-biased news sites, from the liberal Huffington Post to the conservative Breitbart.
The result has been increased American polarization, substituting family-owned publications that usually strove to give both sides with strident cable television stations and websites. Social media platforms such as Facebook use algorithms which prize provocative post clicks over accuracy.
Recall that the internet’s flood of “free” information was hoped, back in the 1990s, to bring us all together by allowing more viewpoints on our way to the truth. No longer would a few publishing “gatekeepers” like Frank Blethen — or me — monopolize information.
But instead of uniting us, websites have created conflicting realities for Americans, resulting in political dysfunction.
This isn’t the first time an information revolution caused social friction. When Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440, it initially allowed distribution of rival Bibles that ordinary people could read, increasing fanaticism and igniting bloody religious wars. The Enlightenment came much later.
Ghosts, deserts … and misinformation
Ghost newspapers and newspaper deserts — counties where dailies and weeklies have disappeared entirely — typically force people to turn to social media, Fox News and CNN, Blethen said. “Two of these (social media and Fox) are the biggest purveyors of misinformation and false information in the nation,” he warned.
“I don’t see much hope for democracy. You can’t have half the country out there getting false information.”
It has also created haves and have-nots among media employees. Different websites estimate that average newspaper reporter pay in the U.S. is somewhere between $26,133 and $44,477, both estimates well below the pay of schoolteachers.
But the information wars have been immensely profitable for talking heads, who earn gigantic salaries by keeping Americans as angry and excited as possible. Financial magazines estimate that right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh has a net worth of $600 million. Fox’s Sean Hannity earns $40 million a year, Tucker Carlson $6 million, CNN’s Anderson Cooper $12 million, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow $7 million.
“News” websites also evolve toward “clickbait” — stories that emphasize sensational headlines and provocative pictures. Most rely on opinion pieces that are cheap to produce and which rely on tiny nuggets of hard news reported by ever-shrinking print publications. The same few facts are endlessly recycled with different spin.
Meanwhile, many newspaper journalists have no jobs at all. U.S. newsroom employment declined 51% from 2008 to 2019, estimates Pew Research. Newspaper advertising fell by more than half in the same period.
Seattle Times newsroom employment is about one quarter its peak 30 years ago.
Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, estimated in 2019 that 2,100 newspapers have closed in 15 years, all but 70 of them weeklies. Many surviving dailies have reduced the days they publish. The Skagit Valley Herald recently eliminated its Monday publication on paper.
“The biggest loss has been those weeklies,” Blethen said. Abernathy counted 171 American counties with no newspaper at all, and said 1,449 counties, or half the nation’s total, have only one newspaper left of any kind.
In Whatcom County, the communities of Blaine and Lynden are served by The Northern Light and The Lynden Tribune, locally owned news weeklies benefiting from geographically well-defined and loyal readership and advertising base.
The Anacortes American in western Skagit County likewise operates in a well-defined island community but is owned by Adams Publishing, owners of the Skagit Valley Herald. The three weekly papers in San Juan County are owned by Sound Publishing but no longer have an active news staff.
Yet Blethen said he’s optimistic about journalism’s future, in ways almost unthinkable five years ago when newspapers were still reeling from the Great Recession.
He lobbied successfully for newspaper pension reform legislation that allowed the Times and other papers to stretch out contributions to pension funds. That saved the newspaper millions in annual costs, creating breathing room.
After liquidating what was once a sizable real estate portfolio to survive, the Times just sold its last big asset, a mammoth printing plant in Bothell. Blethen said the sale eliminated a costly mortgage. “We are debt free.”
His tenacity through a decade of budget disaster has brought the newspaper back to slight profitability.
The Times has acquired 70,000 digital subscribers on top of roughly 125,000 daily and 200,000 Sunday paper subscribers, Blethen said. Subscriptions now account for 70% of revenue and advertising only 30%, a reversal of historic norms.
Blethen also just had his first board meeting with Chatham as the minority stockholder. “It was a non-event,” he said. The hedge fund didn’t propose cuts.
Subsidize news — and reform the internet
Papers in smaller markets are struggling, however. The Blethen family acquired the Yakima Herald a quarter-century ago and improved its budget, but Yakima retail advertising has declined so drastically that different models of ownership are being studied.
Meanwhile the rich increase their media influence. The richest man in the world, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post.
“Two things have to happen,” Blethen said. “Unless you want the wealthy to control the news, you need to subsidize it. Local news is the backbone of community and national consensus.”
The other necessity is, “We’ve got to reform the internet.” It isn’t just that too many falsehoods are being published without challenge. The near monopoly that Facebook and Google have established in digital advertising is starving local news. Blethen argued that since websites lift news stories without payment to sell advertising, they should be required to return some of that revenue to journalists and their papers.
Sen. Maria Cantwell is researching ideas for a grant program to sustain local news. Rep. Pramila Jayapal is working on the same idea with colleagues in the House. Rep. Susan DelBene is studying a program of loans or grants similar to the PPE COVID relief package approved this spring. All of Congress is pondering what to do about the internet monopoly giants.
These ideas are probably at least two to five years from passing, Blethen estimated, if they ever do. That may be too late for some struggling newspapers.
Enter nonprofit news
An alternate idea is the development and growth of nonprofit news outlets, which numbered 230 nationally in 2018 and brought in $450 million in grants and donations that year. This was enough to employee 3,000 people, two thirds of them journalists, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Examples in Washington include Salish Current, Crosscut, InvestigateWest, Key Peninsula News and Post Alley. Their success seems to fulfill promises that the internet would allow more diversity, rather than a single dominant newspaper.
But their reach is still too small to focus community attention the way newspapers once did. Blethen also warned that nonprofit revenue is just a few percent of traditional news revenue. They face IRS restrictions on what they can do to sustain nonprofit status. They often rely on some volunteer labor.
Nor is the long-range future clear for the Times. With no family successor in the publisher pipeline, Blethen intends to work another five years, to age 80. If Congress agrees to revive ghost newspapers, all may be well by then even if the Blethen family itself is no longer at the helm.
But the digital revolution is relentless, continually challenging traditional journalism. In 2020 the competing new voices created an information anarchy making governing almost impossible. The future may be noisier, and less enlightening, than ever.
This story originally ran in The Salish Current