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The newspaper industry is dying from irrelevance. Nevertheless, the people who work at journalism schools keep mourning the disappearance of these relics of 19th century technology.
The latest is Joshua Benton at Harvard. He worked a few years in newspapers, wised up to reporting being a dead end job, and got a gig at Harvard in 2008, first as a Nieman Fellow, then as founder of Nieman Labs, which is a fancy name for sitting around whining about the death of print media.
He wrote an 1,800-word complaint about the death of newspapers. He blamed Corporate America for people telling print journalists to go peddle their papers elsewhere. Like many a liberal, he considers Gannett a villain because it wants to make money, but a new villain attracted his attention as well: Alden Global Capital.
But you cannot have villains with a hero, so Benton made newspapers out as staffed by Clark Kents and Lois Lanes who hold local officials accountable with Peter Parker snapping photos of the crooks heading to jail with their faces in their fedoras.
But what newspaper broke the SVB story? Signature Bank? Credit Suisse? Newspapers gave no advance warning of the collapse of the banking industry. Car Wall Street Journal, where are you?
I will give a couple of more personal examples of why the myth of the heroic local newspaper is bogus, but first let me go over Benton’s anti-capitalist approach to the industry. Odd considering he works for Harvard whose endowment is large, some call a hedge fund with a school attached.
Benton began, “Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, should wake up each morning thankful for the existence of No. 2 Alden Global Capital.
“After all, who could ask for a better point of comparison? Alden is the perfect industry villain, a faceless private equity fund dedicated to nothing but cost-cutting and cashflow-draining. Its corporate website contains a total of 21 words, nine of which are Alden, Global, or Capital. It’s run by a secretive billionaire who last gave an interview in the 1980s — the sort of person who can own 15 mansions in Palm Beach and still think: I could really use a 16th.”
Surely, Benton knows better. Mansions in Palm Beach are not why newspapers are dying. Failure to adapt to the Internet is. Smart newspaper owners saw the future and sold out to chains beginning in the 1980s. Then chains — such as Thomson — saw the light and sold out. What is left are bean-counters who want to squeeze what remains like a cheapskate squeezing a nearly empty tube of toothpaste.
Alden tried to take over Gannett and failed.
Benton wrote, “While Alden failed in its bid for Gannett in 2019, it sparked a wave of newspaper industry consolidation that some had foreseen for years. Within a few months, the two largest newspaper companies in the United States — No. 1 Gannett and No. 2 GateHouse — announced they were merging. The name would remain Gannett, but GateHouse execs were mostly left in charge.
“At the end of 2018 — the last full pre-merger year — the two companies had a total of 27,600 employees, according to a Gannett spokesperson. The merger closed in mid-November 2019, by which time it had about 25,000 and was diving headlong into a hunt for ‘inefficiencies.’
“By December 31, 2019, the combined company was down to 21,255. By the end of 2020, that had dropped to 18,141. A year later: 13,800. And its most recent SEC filing reports that, as of the end of 2022, Gannett had just 11,200 employees remaining.
“In other words, Gannett has eliminated 59% of its jobs in four years. It’s as if, instead of merging America’s two largest newspaper chains, one of them was simply wiped off the face of the earth.”
Nice try, but Gannett eliminated no jobs. Its former readers did. While Benton blamed the company, he also had to admit that Sunday circulation fell 77% at Gannett’s 9 biggest newspapers between 2018 and 2022. Fewer readers, fewer reporters.
He pointed out the Lafayette Advertiser in Louisiana — his hometown paper — saw an 85% collapse in circulation over the past 7 years.
The Internet won’t save the paper. Its online presence is pathetic — and it too dropped from 1,421 online subscribers in 2015 to just 468 online subscribers in 2022.
Benton blamed Gannett.
He wrote, “Yikes. All that decline has come amid round after round of Gannett budget cuts. You can debate the direction of causation: how much the cuts were driven by declining revenues, versus how much the declining revenues were driven by the cuts. But the end result is the same either way — a newspaper that is, today, an embarrassing product.”
He offered an example that really does show how empty this newspaper is.
Benton wrote, “The local college team in Lafayette is the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, and they had a big weekend. On Monday, they won the Sun Belt men’s basketball tournament, meaning they will go on to March Madness and the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.
“Was this mentioned in Tuesday’s newspaper? No. Was the fact they were even playing in the conference final mentioned in Monday’s newspaper? No. Probably the single biggest local sports story in the past year, and you wouldn’t know about it reading The Advertiser. (They eventually published a story online Tuesday morning — written by a sports reporter for the Gannett-owned Pensacola News-Journal, three states away.)”
My question is, why didn’t the paper just run the AP version of the story? With only 3,996 subscribers, should it really staff a college basketball game? Maybe some enterprising writer at the school could be found who would work for a byline. That is how tiny dailies worked for more than a century.
Benton ended his column by rolling out the myth of local newspapers publishing the story that breaks the town wide open. It doesn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happens.
I offer two examples.
The first is the biggest scandal in Joe Manchin’s governorship. WVU (West Virginia University) awarded his daughter, Heather Bresch, an MBA she didn’t earn. This allowed her to become CEO of Mylan — a drug company — after it was sold to a Dutch company.
The fellow who had the story is quite prominent in West Virginia politics. He tried to give the story to the Dominion-Post in Morgantown, the home of WVU. No dice.
OK, he took the story to the Charleston Gazette in the state capital. Again, no dice.
West Virginia turned him down twice, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was only too happy to break the story. The scandal cost Michael Garrison his job as president of WVU. Manchin had landed him the job originally.
Oh, the local papers editorialized against the arrangement, but Bresch kept her job and Manchin moved on to the Senate. Ironically, he ran against John Raese, the owner of the Dominion-Post. It is a club, folks, and you are not in it.
My second example is Allen Loughry, the reform candidate who became the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He wrote a book — Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide: The Sordid and Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia — that had forwards by Bob Byrd and John McCain.
Both Charleston newspapers at the time (since merged) praised him and endorsed his election. Once elected, Loughry wrote a new chapter in his book, as he became the first chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court to be prosecuted for corruption. He spent 22 1/2 months in federal prison after a jury found him guilty of 11 criminal counts, including one count of witness tampering.
The story was not broken by any newspaper. Kennie Bass of Channel 8 — WCHS — broke the story and brought down a crook who ran as a reformer.
Well, nobody’s perfect.
This was the top news story on the local paper’s Web site yesterday: “Organizers cancel 2023 Doo Wop, future events.”
The paper put the story behind a paywall. The TV station did not.
And J-schools dare call places without a local paper news deserts?
But what are facts when you have a nice narrative? Benton wrote, “Let’s total up the damage — in raw numbers, if not in stories unbroken and facts not uncovered.”
Stories went unreported when newspapers were healthy. Publishers know the true power of the press is not in what it prints but what it does not print.
Gannett and Alden Global Capital are not evil. They are trying to keep alive an industry whose time passed long ago. But at Harvard’s J-school, it is better to sneer about 15 mansions than to admit newspapers are dead — and good riddance.
Now for today’s TOTALLY SCIENTIFIC POLL — which is peer-reviewed by my cat.
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