Communities lose when newspapers die or slide into decline

It is a story of corruption that will stay secret, politicians who will need fewer votes to win, even dangerous communicable diseases that will spread faster as our best scientists struggle to fight them.

The story is the slow and painful demise of local newspapers, a story whose ending is not yet written but which — without bold intervention and strong reader support — could bring catastrophic repercussions.

Whether you follow the news or not, whether you trust journalists or not, the financial challenges slaying local newspapers will affect your community, your wallet, your quality of life. In some cities, they already have.

We've watched local newspapers lose revenue to tech giants for the better part of the last quarter century. In recent years, the outcome has become dire, with nearly one in five — almost 1,800 newspapers — closed in the last 15 years, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.

Even more prevalent than closures are what Abernathy calls "ghosts," newspapers that are a shell of what they were. Tens of thousands of journalists left newsrooms in the decade ending 2017.

You can blame the insatiable grab for profits from hedge fund ownership like Alden Global Capital and its Digital First Media. But even companies with deep commitments to their journalistic mission have been forced to issue one layoff after another, dismantling newsroom staffs that once kept a check on the powerful.

When they walked out of the newsroom, those journalists took with them their connections to the community and their knowledge of issues and people. We've all lived through the result: Your newspaper's best coverage still might be very good; there's just not nearly enough of it.

I used to think journalists in digital startups would replace newspapers that disappeared. That isn't happening enough. Abernathy identified hundreds of cities with no credible news source left. And last July, Pew Research Center reported that in the decade ending in 2017, roughly 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news startups. Newspapers still employed more journalists — 39,000 — than the 13,000 at digital sites.

What happens when a community loses a newspaper? Or when the newspaper no longer has enough reporters to cover the news? The Federal Communications Commission as far back as 2011 had a bleak prognosis : "More government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems."

This Op-Ed is courtesy of the Associated Press.

Terhaar is a board member with the American Society of News Editors and the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee.

To read the entire article pick up the March 20, 2019 edition of the Brunswick Times-Gazette.