Journalism’s real crisis: It isn’t fake news or Trump’s attacks

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 2, 2017

The situation is sickeningly familiar to anyone who works on — or reads — a metropolitan daily newspaper, whether it’s in New Orleans, Detroit or just about any other American city.

The paper is hurting financially. It cuts reporters, photographers and editors to make ends meet. Then it cuts even deeper. The journalism suffers, but the paper’s work is still vital to its community. And a question looms: Will it even survive the next decade?

“The real crisis in American journalism is at the local and metro level,” says Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism in Philadelphia, founded last year to save local journalism in Philadelphia and spread the cure around the nation.

With the death of their old business model — based on once-plentiful print advertising — newsrooms are trying something new, he said. Like never before, they are turning to philanthropic sources and community support for sustenance.

“We have to really face facts here — the commercial model isn’t going to fix the problem,” said Steven Waldman, who wrote a seminal FCC report in 2011 that laid out the burgeoning crisis. Since then, things may have improved for national news organizations, like The Washington Post and the New York Times, whose national and global journalism has attracted millions of digital subscribers.

But on the local level, the crisis has only grown worse. Digital advertising, once thought to be a savior, hasn’t materialized sufficiently. The base of possible subscribers is limited. And vastly increased chain ownership by out-of-town investors, who too often squeeze the paper to improve profits, has wreaked havoc.

It’s not exaggerating to say that local reporting of all kinds — from day-to-day city hall coverage to world-changing investigations like the one celebrated in the movie “Spotlight” — is faced with extinction.

“People had to absorb the reality. There is now a recognition that the crisis in local journalism threatens our democracy and must be addressed,” said Waldman, who along with Charles Sennott, a former Boston Globe Middle East bureau chief, heads one such new venture, Report for America.

With the ugly reality now all too obvious, hope-inspiring new efforts may be reaching critical mass.

  The Lenfest Institute, with $20 million in funding from Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, is focused on saving local journalism in Philadelphia, where the Inquirer and Daily News newsrooms, along with the digital, pool their resources and innovations. And the institute is funding a wide array of start-ups and research projects from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Mountain View, California.

  ProPublica, the well-respected investigative nonprofit based in New York, has expanded to the Midwest, with a pilot project called ProPublica Illinois, striving to get local funding for its journalism. Similar branches could spring up around the country.

• The Texas Tribune, based in Austin, uses philanthropic dollars to staff its watchdog reporting efforts. (It emphasizes important state-government reporting, which has atrophied across the country.) The Tribune was an early – and visionary — example of the nonprofit model, along with MinnPost in Minnesota and Voice of San Diego.

Some organizations are turning to a membership model that asks regular news consumers to get behind the journalism in their communities.

Report for America — funded partly by Google News Lab — has emerged as one of the most intriguing ideas. Modeled to some extent on the Peace Corps and Teach for America, it puts young journalists where they are most needed, for a year of service.

In parts of Appalachia where reporting from metro dailies has withered, three Report for America journalists will work within traditional news organizations to supplement their coverage, said Sennott. The project wants 1,000 reporters placed within the next five years.

“There’s a really great spirit of adventure in being a local reporter,” said Sennott, who founded the GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit which helps fund Report for America.

Can these efforts, worthy and well-intentioned as they are, really make up for having a strong newspaper (or, once upon a time, two or three) in every sizable American city?

Certainly not. Or, more hopefully, not yet. But their growth is a sign that philanthropists, foundations and news consumers are taking the crisis seriously.

Americans’ awareness of damaging hoaxes and lies in the form of news stories — also known as “fake news” — means that local news organizations are more important than ever.

“The public is paying attention,” said David Chavern, who heads the News Media Alliance, which rolls out a national public-education campaign this week called “Support Real News,” emphasizing the role of trusted — often local — news sources.

“We have a moment,” he told me, “and moments don’t last.”

To say that local journalism should be saved is an understatement. It simply must be saved, and the time is now.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.