It was another terrible week for American journalism, but there is some hope (discussed below) in all these dark clouds.
Gloom settled over Baltimore, where the respected Baltimore Sun has jumped out of the frying pan of ownership by the cut-to-profit Alden Global Capital and into the skillet of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of KOMO in Seattle and notorious for pushing right wing and Trumpian policies on its stations and papers.
Then there was the story about the plight of billionaire saviors of major publications, such as Time, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Web traffic has waned along with referrals from search engines. These billionaires, including Jeff Bezos and Marc Benioff, are said to be “losing a fortune,” and the continuing tragedy of the once-admired LA Times has produced new exits of topsiders. Many wonder if these wealthy saviors are more interested in status than stories, and one promising, well-funded startup in Houston just experienced sudden firings of a top editor and star reporter. Looming over these properties is the menace of AI, which can scrape and remix stories and present them at low cost to readers.
Of mixed clouds and sunshine was the news that the largest publisher of localized news in Washington, Canada’s Black Press Papers, is trying to fend off bankruptcy by selling to financiers and Mississippi-based Carpenter Media Group. When I was publisher of Seattle Weekly, one of the purchase bidders in 1997 was David Black of Black Press Media, a Victoria-based group that buys lots of small newspapers, consolidates printing and administration, and leaves small community shells with a reporter or two.
Black ended up owning Seattle Weekly, which it skeletonized, as well as The Herald of Everett. The exit of Black may provide opportunities for local revival of many of these community papers, particularly on the Eastside. Smaller towns can often support publications, since advertisers are more comfortable with hyper-local print products than social media.
The journalist James Fallows has observed that journalism badly needs a “host body” to flow dollars to the project. Once that host body was newsstand sales and classified ads, then advertisers (particularly downtown department stores), then higher-rate, targeted upscale advertising, and finally digital subscriptions (which are difficult for non-national papers to pull off). The new host bodies are billionaires, private investment firms, and absentee owners who tend to be (inter)national in focus, not city-based, and they can be mercurial. Another source of host money is bailout money from Google and Facebook – $600 million globally – and federal funds, plus local sponsorships for issue-specific solutions journalism (as publisher Frank Blethen is trying to tap for The Seattle Times).
Several years ago, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, called me for lunch and proposed that universities get into the business of supporting quality journalism, tapping students, faculty research, and experienced editors in their journalism school. Columbia Journalism School, best in the nation, is partly staffed by moonlighting New York Times journalists. That idea makes sense until you consider the need for universities to please legislators and wealthy donors and avoid tromping on powerful toes. Still, journalism of quality has learned to be adept at avoiding sensitive stories and erecting protections for independence, such as the UW-spawned KUOW.
Some also expect a return of the “Trump Bump,” should Trump be re-elected or turn into a mediagenic thorn in the side of a Democratic president. A serious blow to steady readership has been the arrival of the bland insiderism of Joe Biden, replacing the viral news of Trump outrages. Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times recently poured cold water on that idea, arguing that Trump has lost the capacity to shock and has become boring, and that many readers have opted for news avoidance. More likely than a Trump Bump in readership is the AI Abyss, in my view.
Back to Baltimore for some promising developments. With the Sun setting, some experienced local journalists with a local hotel billionaire, Stewart Bainum Jr., started a serious alternative in 2022, The Baltimore Banner. One wonders, why not Seattle? Meanwhile, national funders are banding together to support startups and ideas for transforming the economics of local journalism. The Press Forward initiative, combining 22 funders and $500 million in grants, is a good example of pooled funding and peer learning in these efforts to reinvent local journalism.
Shouldn’t Seattle, with all its wealth and an educated readership and a tradition of innovation, be leading this parade?