President Donald Trump’s nickname notwithstanding, The New York Times is far from failing. The newspaper released its third quarter earnings report last month and by almost every metric it’s good news for the Gray Lady. With more than four million subscribers to its print and digital services (the most in its history) and digital advertising revenue up 17 percent, year over year operating profits rose by 30 percent to $41.4 million for the quarter.
And yet, while our fraught political moment has generated a financial feast for the Times and other prominent newspapers, the death march for the majority of the nation’s newsrooms continues apace. Much (virtual) ink has been spilled on the life and death of American newspapers, but a recent report from the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism provides the most detailed and dire picture thus far.
As the report makes clear, the number of communities with little or no news coverage, a phenomenon media critics have dubbed “news deserts,” is rapidly expanding. Half of the nation’s counties have only one newspaper, while almost 200 counties have no newspaper at all.
In fact, of the nation’s nearly 9,000 newspapers operating in 2004, a full 20 percent have either gone out of business or have merged. Hundreds more have scaled back coverage to such a degree that they’ve become what the report calls “ghost” newspapers, which it defines as newsrooms unable to adequately cover their communities due to diminished financial resources.
The scaled back coverage is best reflected by the number of journalists practicing the trade. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, newspaper staffing has dropped 45 percent since 2004 from 71,640 to 39,210. This represents a sharper decline in employment, both in terms of numbers and percentage, than was experienced by the country’s coal mining industry during the same time period.
The Americans most severely affected are the precise demographic that public interest journalism is ideally intended to serve. “The people with the least access to local news,” the researchers write, “are often the most vulnerable—the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”
For those looking to cast blame, there’s a lot of blood on a lot of hands. Usual suspects include the 2008 global financial crisis and the domination of the digital advertising duopoly of Facebook and Google, which accounts for upward of 75 percent of all digital ad revenue. But the biggest culprit, according to the report, is the consolidation of journalism into the hands of what it calls “new media barons.”
Indeed, the largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two thirds of the nation’s 1,200 dailies. Such consolidation is not without consequences: it places editorial and business decisions about the future of individual papers into the hands of owners with no direct stake in the communities where the papers are located. Given that five of the 10 largest newspaper chains are owned by hedge funds, private equity firms, and other types of investment groups, such decisions no longer reflect long-term sustainability, but instead seek to maximize a short-term return on investment. As New Media Investment Group CEO Mike Reed told Harvard University’s Nieman Lab earlier this year, “The thing that we always have to think about and remember is that our first objective is always what’s the best thing for our shareholders.”
New Media Investment Group is the holding company of GateHouse Media, the largest newspaper chain in the country with over 451 newspapers in 31 states. In its effort to service shareholders, it has shown a willingness to sell or close underperforming papers and aggressively diminish investment in news operations. Two of its innovative cost-cutting strategies include outsourcing news and sales operations to remote locations and establishing regional publishers and editors who are responsible for operating several newspapers at a time. More than 200 of GateHouse’s newspapers are managed in a center in Austin, Texas, far removed from the communities the papers purport to serve.
Despite these efforts to squeeze out profits, GateHouse’s 3 percent operating margin pales in comparison to the 17 percent operating margin of Digital First Media, the nation’s third largest newspaper chain. A subsidiary of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, it operates 158 papers in 12 states. The higher margins posted by Digital First were the result of aggressive cost reductions at its newspapers, including multiple rounds of layoffs. Although newsroom staffing across the country declined by nearly a quarter between 2012 and 2017, Digital First Media gutted its staff by more than half during the same period. At The Denver Post alone, Digital First Media has reduced the size of the newsroom by nearly two thirds over the past five years.
Politico’s media critic Jack Shafer reflected on this bloodletting in a column titled “This Is How a Newspaper Dies,” arguing that readers deserve as much—if not more—of the blame. “It was readers who stopped subscribing,” Shafer writes. “It was readers who stopped using newspaper classifieds. It was readers who stopped reading. Readers are the true villains in this murder mystery.”
With a shortage of “benevolent” billionaires (à la Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos), newspaper-loving Shafer submits to the inevitable: “Go ahead and hate Randall Smith [principal of Alden Global Capital] all you want, but do so with the understanding that, like the mortician, he’s figured out a way to make money off of death.”
This well might be true. A newspaper without a readership won’t be a newspaper for long. But there’s a difference between dying of natural causes and being euthanized. Although the industry has long had one foot in the grave, hastening its death with a “spasm of profits,” as Shafer puts it, is an act worthy of contempt.
Daniel Kishi is associate editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @DanielMKishi.