Over at Politico, press critic Jack Shafer writes – provocatively – Care About Journalism? Maybe You Should Cancel Your Newspaper:
It’s heresy for a journalist to ask readers to consider dropping their newspaper. Beyond the obvious self-interest, reporters and editors consider a subscription to your local newspaper as a paramount civic duty, a view shared by academics, politicians, and activists. Local reporters hold government and corporations accountable, the refrain goes. They keep an eye on school boards and polluters and their stories boost voter turnout. They uncover corruption. They knit the weave in the social fabric. They foster democracy!
But when you pay for a newspaper, you’re also making a decision to send money to whoever owns it. And if you really care about local news, you might want to think twice about continuing your subscription to one of the 50-plus dailies operated by Alden Global Capital under the Digital First Media nameplate in Denver, Detroit, Long Beach, San Jose, Boston, St. Paul, and other smaller cities. Good journalism still gets done at these newspapers because reporters care. But less and less of it gets printed, because Alden owner Randall Smith and his right-hand man, Heath Freeman, don’t care about the new. As newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor has amply documented, Alden is cannibalizing its papers for profit in a way that should repel subscribers.
Shafer is proposing cancellations of local newspapers that are part of a chain. Alden Global Capital owns one such chain, but then another out-of-state chain – APG – owns some of the papers in the Whitewater area (Janesville Gazette and Daily Jefferson County Union).
Cancel? Although one sees Shafer’s point about local-that’s-not-really-local, I’ll not offer advice for subscribers to these (generally struggling) local newspapers. I’ve been a critic of these papers, as I grew up in a newspaper-reading family at a time with much better journalism. Although there’s ample doubt about whether the Gazette and Daily Union will survive, my critique is about reporting and editorial outlook alone. One makes this critique because these papers could do better, and look each day more like advertising-delivery networks that are doing worse
If these newspapers fail, they will fail because they abandoned independence for the boosterism of sugary feature stories and sloppy editorials.
When someone like Trump complains about national newspapers, he calls their reporting fake only because it is rightly embarrassing to his administration. On the contrary, national – and local – newspapers fail not because they are too critical of official misconduct, but because they are too timid in the face of it. Trump (self-interestedly) gets the problem backward.
Local newspapers have slipped far, and the older editors employed there show no ability to teach another generation properly. Mentoring should be more than confidence-building platitudes and atta-boy compliments. Those approaches are sometimes helpful, but it was, is, and always will be true that the substance of one’s work speaks most powerfully.