AD Main Menu

Are dying newspapers too big to fail? Can online start-ups stop the gap?

Jessica BruderThe Christian Science Monitor
Loren Holmes photo

One Saturday in June, the Pinstripe Brass Band played a traditional jazz funeral in the lakeside Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. When "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" gave way to a livelier tune, dozens of mourners danced.

But there was no coffin. Black frosting on a sheet cake spelled "-30-," the mark reporters put at a story's end. This was a requiem for a newspaper.

The 175-year-old daily Times-Picayune, with a paid weekday circulation of more than 134,000, had announced plans to slash print publication to three days a week, leaving daily coverage to its online edition. "Paper Lays Off 200 Employees" blared a Times-Picayune headline. Those cuts included the funeral's host, photographer John McCusker, who had documented hurricane Katrina from a kayak after losing his home to the floodwaters.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Mr. McCusker and his colleagues had madeThe Times-Picayune indispensable to a community rebuilding after tremendous loss.

So when readers learned their daily paper was going away, many saw a dangerous civic situation.

The irregular, diminished patchwork of media that remains – which encompasses fewer seasoned reporters – won't come close to offering the same intensive coverage that a full-force daily did, says activist Anne Milling. On the watchdog side, that means reduced government accountability. And on the information-delivery side, in a city where a third of adults lack home Internet access, the new Web focus will leave the most vulnerable Picayune readers behind.

"A daily Times-Picayune has been the backbone of the community in our post-Katrina environment and provides the foundation for all civic dialogue and discourse," Ms. Milling wrote in a notice announcing the launch of The Times-Picayune Citizens' Group, an alliance she founded to amplify readers' concerns.

And readers were upset.

Hundreds of them attended rallies, waving placards that said "Don't Stop the Presses." More than 9,000 signed an online petition. "Save the Picayune" lawn signs and Wild West-style "Wanted" posters with the new publisher's face cropped up across town. The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution calling unanimously for the paper to remain a daily. Readers began to boycott what they now called "The SomeTimes-Picayune."

Their daily paper had remained well read and profitable despite the newspaper industry's overall decline. Three-quarters of residents saw the paper each week, making its stories a centerpiece of conversation from barbershops to city hall.

More: Online start-ups seek to fill community void

New Orleans was about to become the largest city in America without its own daily paper. But beneath the drama was a quieter question: Does it matter?

More than sentiment is at stake. The number of American daily newspapers has fallen from 1,878 in 1940 to 1,382 last year. When daily newspapers die, communities become less connected and collaborative, new studies suggest. Economists and media researchers are seeing a drop-off in civic participation – the same kind of collective vigor readers showed in fighting for The Times-Picayune – after the presses stop rolling.

"More of American life now occurs in shadow. And we cannot know what we do not know," said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, testifying at a 2009 Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing on the future of news.

New research suggests that fewer people vote after their communities lose a daily print newspaper. Fewer run for office. Fewer boycott – or buy – something based on what they think of a company's values. Fewer contact public leaders to voice opinions. Fewer pitch in with neighborhood groups. More incumbent politicians get reelected. And these things happen despite the presence of digital and broadcast media.

What you don't know may hurt you

Tom Stites founded the Banyan Project – an initiative to develop reader-owned, online news cooperatives, which he incubated as a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society – because he worries about "news deserts."

"A news desert is a community whose sources of original reporting have dried up entirely, or are diminished to the point where they can no longer fill the information needs of the communities they serve," he explains. Mr. Stites is working to build a pilot website in Haverhill, Mass., a place he describes as "an obvious news desert."

The town used to have a daily paper. But in 1998, the daily Haverhill Gazette was sold and pared down to once a week.

Not long after, disaster struck the 60,000-person community. Between 1999 and 2001, the town-owned Hale Municipal Hospital lost $15 million, according to Boston Business Journal. Inaccurate filings by a private manager obscured the extent of the problem, which piled on top of preexisting debt and led to the hospital's sale in 2001. Citizens are still on the hook, repaying $7 million annually until 2023.

"I think a good newspaper would have helped our community do a better job," says John Cuneo, who runs a local antipoverty nonprofit. Robust reporting, he suggests, might have mitigated the crisis and given citizens a more critical assessment.

He and other community members say a lack of daily news coverage leaves Haverhill residents in the dark about local events. "If we're throwing a fundraiser or trying to advance a community cause, it's a lot harder to get coverage than it used to be," he explains. (For these reasons and others, Mr. Cuneo now volunteers with the Banyan Project to develop its pilot site, Haverhill Matters.)

Dissenting from the notion that Haverhill is undercovered is Al White, editor of the Eagle-Tribune. The company, whose downtown Haverhill office closed in March, still publishes a regional paper covering more than a dozen towns including Haverhill, along with the weekly Haverhill Gazette.

"Name one community where people won't say that," Mr. White says, addressing local claims of inadequate coverage. "This is a silly conversation." Asked in a phone interview about the home page of the Haverhill Gazette's website, where the most recent story in the schools section was more than 100 days old, he replied, "Do you want to have a conversation, or do you just want to harangue me?" Then he hung up the phone.

The effects of closing daily newspapers have been more formally studied by Lee Shaker, a communications professor at Portland State University in Oregon. Professor Shaker examined the death of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition. "They were deeply embedded in their communities, in terms of people waking up in the morning and reading them and also as clearinghouse institutions where reporters had spent their entire careers," Shaker says. "[The reporters] knew how things worked and could shed light on the truth." Both papers were approaching their 150th anniversaries when publishers pulled the plug in 2009.

From a research perspective, they couldn't have expired at a better time. Months earlier, the US Census Bureau had started collecting data to assess how deeply citizens were involved with their communities in big cities across the country. This set the stage for what social scientists call a "natural experiment."

Shaker examined the bureau's findings from before and after the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Even though Denver and Seattle were each left with one daily print paper – previously, both had been two-newspaper towns – the change was significant. Shaker saw a decline in certain public-minded behaviors, including boycotts, which outpaced other cities.

The data did not explain why. So, asks Shaker: "Did civic engagement decline because people stopped reading a newspaper? Or because you took a newspaper out of the community?" After all, newspapers play a dual role: keeping readers informed and acting as watchdogs.

Having a paper around, Shaker adds, "is a public good we all benefit from, even if we don't read it, because it means journalists are pounding the pavement, holding officials accountable, activating the community."

The death of The Cincinnati Post, the final edition of which appeared on New Year's Eve in 2007, created a similar effect, according to another scholarly paper, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Media Economics. When the Post and its sister edition, The Kentucky Post, closed, political participation dropped across the northern Kentucky suburbs. Though the area's other daily newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, remained in business, the Post had provided 80 percent of the papers' combined coverage of that suburban zone.

"What we found was that, relatively speaking, fewer people ran for municipal office, incumbents became more likely to be reelected, candidates spent less on their campaigns, and voter turnout fell in the suburbs that got the most coverage from the Post," says economist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, the study's lead author and a former newspaperman.

Along with his coauthor, Miguel Garrido, he concluded in the paper: "If voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates, and accountability for incumbents are important for democracy, we side with those who lament newspapers' decline."

No watchdogs in "news deserts"

But all newspapers aren't created equal when it comes to boosting civic-minded behavior. In the mid-1990s, The New York Times began a campaign to grow in local markets nationwide. Two researchers have made an extensive study of that expansion's impact on the Times's college-educated target audience.

As the Times gobbles up local market share, "these readers are less likely to vote in local elections," wrote Lisa M. George and Joel Waldfogel in a 2002 working paper titled "Does the New York Times Spread Ignorance and Apathy?"

Ten years later, the alarm raised by this research still resonates among media-watchers.

"There are these highly educated cosmopolitans who are aware of all sorts of global issues, but increasingly unaware of what's happening in their city council or down the block," says Eric Klinenberg, author of the book "Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media." "That points to a major market failure. We have a collective need for news about local political matters; but in the marketplace, it doesn't generate the kind of demand that sports, gossip, and the weather do. We pay a steep price for this market failure."

Sometimes that price, paid by the public, goes to filling politicians' pockets. This appears to have been the case in Bell, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb of 36,000 people. Though more than 1 in 5 residents there lives below the poverty line, their public servants lived lavishly for years. City Manager Robert Rizzo owned a million-dollar home in an Orange County beach town. His 10-acre ranch in Auburn, Wash., housed a stable of thoroughbreds, including one called "Depenserdel'argent," from the French phrase for "spend money."

The name of Mr. Rizzo's horse – along with his annual salary of $800,000, later assessed at $1.5 million when investigators added benefits and other forms of compensation – came out in a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 report by the Los Angeles Times. Eight public officials were subsequently fired and charged in an ongoing criminal case with stealing some $5.5 million from taxpayers over at least four years. But by the time they were dragged into court, Bell was on the brink of bankruptcy.

"A lot of residents tried to get the media's attention, but it was impossible," community activist Christina Garcia told interviewers for a 2011 Federal Communications Commission report. "The city of Bell doesn't even have a local paper; no local media of any sort."

Bell had become a news de-sert, largely ignored by neighboring media, with no dedicated coverage of its own. With residents' annual income averaging below $13,000, it wasn't exactly a magnet for advertisers, newspapers' traditional source of revenue.

"It was years ago that Bell had a community newspaper. It was called the Bell, Maywood, Cudahy Community News," wrote Brian Hews, publisher of the Los Cerritos Community Newspaper, which is head-quartered 10 miles from Bell, in a postmortem of the scandal. "I know this because it was part of a larger newspaper group my family owned. Art Aguilar was the editor at the time, and, suffice to say, you did not mess with Art. Coincidentally, we sold those papers in 1998, right around the time Bell hired [Rizzo]." Eventually, the News shut down.

There's no telling whether a tiny, now-defunct paper would have detected – or deterred – corruption in Bell. But it's also impossible to know how many communities, in the absence of watchdog institutions, are currently getting hollowed out from within.

"In short, the Bell spectacle is what happens to communities without their own old-fashioned diligent news coverage by veteran newspaper reporters, or at least smart reporters led by veteran newspaper editors," Terry Francke, the cofounder and general counsel of open-government group Californians Aware, wrote on the Voice of OC website. "The result need not be on paper, but it must be done with the community memory and professional savvy almost unique to newspaper-trained journalists with experience watching small-town politics."

Information = participation

Civic value, however, doesn't always equate to market value. And in the words of digital media theorist Clay Shirky, " 'You're gonna miss us when we're gone!' has never been much of a business model."

In the past five years, newspapers distributing 25,000 copies or more on an average day have seen circulation plunge by 21 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. "Most printed daily newspapers will be gone in about five years," predicted a January report by the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. (Even The Onion, which once satirically attributed 93 percent of newspaper sales to ransom-note writers, was forced to cut its weekly West Coast print editions.)

But the real challenge for civil society isn't propping up dying newspapers. It's about funding and disseminating the kind of journalism that holds leaders accountable and knits communities together.

Newsgathering's business model broke when advertising dollars didn't follow the migration of content from print to the Internet. Jeff Zucker, head of NBC Universal, famously cautioned the media in 2008 against "trading analog dollars for digital pennies." The alternative to that, however, remains unclear.

"There are all sorts of reasons to be excited about the digital revolution and what it means for news production. But for the moment – and I fear, for many, many years to come – we'll be living in an information ecology that's dramatically diminished because of the loss of local journalism," Mr. Klinenberg, the author, says. "Local newspapers are really the center of the news ecosystem. So if you get rid of newspaper reporting, your television news is going to be much thinner, your online news is going to be much thinner, your radio news will be thinner."

Back in New Orleans, the media landscape is still shifting. After The Times-Picayune announced its final daily edition, The Advocate, a newspaper headquartered 80 miles away in Baton Rouge, opened a New Orleans bureau.

"It's a small staff. It's all Picayuners, former Picayuners," says McCusker, who was among the first hired. The Advocate began printing a daily New Orleans edition. By the end of the first week of October, editors said, it had signed up 10,000 subscribers.

Milling, the civic activist, welcomed The Advocate. She doubts, however, that it will fill the void. "The Advocate staff pales in comparison to what the Picayune newsroom used to be," she says, worried that fewer stories overall will be covered. "And if you don't know what's going on, you can't react. You can't participate."

Milling still looks forward to the paper arriving with a thump on her doorstep between 5:30 and 6 a.m. each day. But it's not her news anymore.

"I never thought I would say The New York Times is my daily newspaper," she says. "Isn't that pitiful?"

From the ashes, a solution?

A few days after The Times-Picayune shuttered its daily edition, a 23-year-old New Orleans reporter flew to New York to accept a national Edward R. Murrow Award, one of journalism's top prizes. Jessica Williams wasn't from the Picayune or, for that matter, The Advocate. She was a staff reporter at The Lens, a scrappy nonprofit start-up for investigative journalism that is growing in response to the Picayune's cutbacks. Her story was about a woman who'd spent six years trying – and ultimately, failing – to get back into her damaged home after hurricane Katrina.

Two months earlier, Lens cofounder Karen Gadbois had also won national honors. The Society of Professional Journalists gave her its annual ethics award for exposing an unsavory practice among New Orleans police: disseminating the arrest records of crime victims.

If there's hope for journalism here – and elsewhere – experiments like The Lens may offer a glimpse of the future.

"We don't have any illusions of being the answer or the model," Ms. Gadbois admits. She says she doesn't believe any single effort will suffice. Newspapers may wane, but citizens' information needs are still immense.

"Without a community, a newspaper ceases to be relevant," she says. "But does a community cease to be relevant when there's no newspaper?"