Travel IndustryBooksSmarter ShoppingSports

Media critic Margaret Sullivan outlines the mounting crisis for local journalism

July 14, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

In a year that has already included an impeachment hearing, a global pandemic, an economic crisis worse than any other in modern history, and a U.S. presidential election still on the horizon, there is no shortage of news.

But there is a shortage of resources to report on these events, especially at a local level, according to Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Washington Post and the former public editor of the New York Times.

In her new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy (Columbia Global Reports), Sullivan aims to amplify the long-running alarm that local news media—entities core to local and national democracy—are in more trouble than ever. The greatest risk, she writes, is that local newspapers especially are on the verge of disappearing forever, which could have severe ramifications during a time when fact-based reporting is under siege.

Sullivan recently answered a few questions for Fortune about the state of local news during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

Ghosting the News-Margaret Sullivan
Margaret Sullivan
Michael Benabib

Fortune: The economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the already beleaguered news industry, with many businesses pulling advertising dollars, resulting in slashed budgets and thousands of layoffs. But nowhere has been more decimated than local news. Given the severity of this public health crisis, coupled with the fact that local newspapers had already been in decline for years, can local media ever make a comeback? And how will this shape local communities? Where will they look for news now?

Sullivan: We have to separate “local news” from “local newspapers.” It’s very unlikely that local newspapers in their traditional printed form will make a comeback. The underlying business model—based on plentiful print advertising and bygone reading habits—simply has changed too much. But certainly there is plenty of hope for local news in other forms. We’re seeing hundreds of new digital sites cropping up all around the country, many of them nonprofits.

The highly successful prototype for these is the Texas Tribune in Austin, which now is joining forces in an exciting new venture with the well-respected investigative journalism organization, ProPublica. The relatively new organization Report for America, based loosely on the Peace Corps, is growing. Public radio stations are stepping up. Local TV stations are doing more enterprise and investigative work. And newspapers, even in their diminished form, are still doing very important journalism. I see the answer as a patchwork, not just one solution.

With millions of workers—including journalists—working from home, there is the argument that people can theoretically live wherever they want (or wherever they can afford) while still getting a job for a major corporation based in New York City or Washington, D.C. However, while it can be convenient, there are a number of reasons why working from home might not be a sustainable option for journalists beyond the pandemic, from building a base of sources to really knowing a community or environment. Could we expect a shift in the workforce like this, and how might that affect the way the news is shaped and delivered?

For the news media writ large, this could be a positive development. It’s a problem that too many journalists live in New York City, Washington, D.C., and in the large cities of California. So if remote work allows more journalists to live in other regions of the country while reporting for the big national outlets, that’s good.

But for local journalism, of course, reporters need to live in the region where the coverage takes place. So, once again, this is a case of the national media organizations and the local ones having very different sets of circumstances.

On that same note, if people are leaving major (and expensive) cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among elsewhere, out of either health or financial concerns, could we see a shift in talent heading toward local media in smaller markets? 

That’s possible. But the problem in these localities isn’t really one of sufficient talent. It’s one of opportunity, and frankly, who is going to give you a paycheck to do your journalistic digging? Will there be significant growth of local news organizations that could employ individuals who want to report from Cleveland or Cheyenne? I’d love to see that, of course, but again the difficult problem of the underlying business model arises. And there is no easy solution there.

Ghosting the News-Book Cover
“Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy”
Courtesy of Columbia Global Reports

All of this sounds very doom and gloom for local news (and for some places, that really is the case), but many readers understand the value of local news reporting, often recognizing that value through purchasing digital subscriptions and other products. Is there a particular local news outlet (magazine, newspaper, digital only, etc.) with a business model that is getting it right and that could serve as a model for others?

You’re absolutely right, and the troubling paradox is that while people trust local media, in general, more than they do national media, they don’t always open their wallets to support those local outlets. In fact, some Pew Research that I write about in my book was startling to a lot of journalists: We media people know all too well that many local news sources are deeply troubled, financially, but most Americans do not know. And most Americans aren’t accustomed to paying for local news. So that’s a real problem to be overcome.

And some of this falls at our own doorstep: For many years, newspaper management put their journalism on the web for free. Now, we expect news consumers to switch gears and happily pay for it. There are success stories in the midst of this—both the New York Times and the Washington Post have been able to procure enough digital subscriptions to make that revenue a sustaining force as advertising dollars have dwindled. But this is much harder to do on the local level. However, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times, among others, are showing big jumps in digital subscriptions. And that is a hopeful sign not only for them but for others to emulate. 

Ahead of your new book’s release this week, there was some criticism that it didn’t cover industry trends concerning objectivity (and how much it really matters anymore or not) and how national politics have permeated into local news. Now, of course, you can’t cover everything—there are simply too many debatable issues in journalism to cover in one book—but how would you respond to that criticism now that it’s been addressed?

Whenever I talk to news consumers, across the country, I hear a refrain: “Just give me the facts. I don’t want any interpretation from you.” And that desire is understandable. However, every time we decide to write a story or choose a photograph or narrow down who to interview, we are making choices. 

So I would reframe the objectivity question as a fairness question: How can we best make our journalism accurate and fair—to the people we cover, to the people affected, and to the citizens who depend on us for information? Almost all institutions—schools, law enforcement, corporations—are less trusted now than decades ago. It’s not just the news media. But there is more trust in local news organizations than in the national media. That makes it all the more crucial that our society find ways to sustain and reinvent these local-news sources that are under siege.