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John W. MillerApril 28, 2021

Editor's Note: The Moral Economy is a new series that tackles key economic topics through the prism of Catholic social teaching and its care for the dignity of every person. This is the fourth article in the series.

The United States, a nation built on newspapers, has journalism in its future.

Thousands of digital startups. Billionaires backing nonprofit news. The emergence of working subscriber models, from Substack newsletters to America Media.

Two dark clouds hover over this promising terrain. One consists of Facebook, Google and Apple, tech companies worth trillions of dollars that dominate access to the internet and dwarf the biggest news companies. Instead of a handful of newspapers and magazines, we can now read over a billion websites, fracturing our attention, enabling conspiracy theories and fueling media illiteracy.

Journalism gets attention when it breaks big stories about institutions like Enron and the Catholic Church. But they can only do that work if they are consistently read — and broadly trusted.

The other, as with so much else in American society, are the regional inequalities accentuated by technology. In wealthy cities, with large markets and philanthropic support, newspapers like the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and Minneapolis Star-Tribune have stabilized. For readers who can afford it, there are new excellent niche publications that cover topics like sports (The Athletic) and technology (The Information). Then there is Substack, offering subscription-driven newsletters on everything from Bitcoin to parenting.

What has gone missing, or at least become a rarer beast, is local news in smaller, poorer towns, where 2,100 newspapers have died since 2005. Talented young journalists and investment capital are fleeing these regions.

And here lies the real and deep crisis in journalism. For anybody who cares about the dignity of every human and the prosperity of local communities as espoused by Catholic social teaching, the stakes are enormous.

For anybody who cares about the dignity of every human and the prosperity of local communities as espoused by Catholic social teaching, the stakes are enormous.

Although the church was (rightly) the target of some of the most famous investigative journalism ever conducted, into the coverup of pedophile priests, its teaching promotes journalism as a glue that bonds communities, a force that fights injustice and inequality and a light that shows the best in people. Good journalism, I like to think, is loving.

Local news, Pope Francis said in a 2019 speech, helps citizens “intercept the same reality” and “transmit to a wider horizon all those values that belong to the life and history of the people, and at the same time give voice to poverty, challenges, sometimes urgent issues in the territories, along the streets, meeting families, in places of work.”

A widening divide

There is another important reason to uphold local news. In the United States, better local news would reduce distrust of national news outlets. For people at the local level to trust news published by people they don’t know in faraway cities, they have to see people they do know doing the work of making phone calls, holding city councils accountable and printing corrections when they make mistakes.

“Saying ‘national media sucks,’ is a lot easier than looking a local journalist you know in the eye to say that,” John Isner, co-host of the popular West Virginia-based Appodlachia podcast told me. Without local journalism, he added, the divide between urban and rural America is widening.

Newspapers have a special place in American culture and history, one that sets it apart from other countries.

Newspapers have a special place in American culture and history, one that sets it apart from other countries. Of 180 countries recently surveyed, 73 percent did not have a free press. When I was a child in Belgium, America meant three things to me: baseball, Broadway and newspapers.

America was founded on Enlightenment ideals spread by printing presses, which were a sign of a town’s emergence along with a school and a church. The founding fathers considered journalism so essential that they subsidized postal and road systems for delivery. In the 1790s, two thirds of mail was newspapers. Thomas Jefferson said he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “government without newspapers.”

A second era for journalism began with the industrial revolution. Businesses needed ways to reach and persuade customers to buy their tomatoes, books and wagon wheels. They bought ads in newspapers. With local businesses paying the bills, every city, town and village in the land could count on a newsroom of dozens, even hundreds, of men and women to chronicle daily life. These journalists developed a code, a culture, a practice, based on thoroughness, honesty and integrity, that helped form the intellectual and cultural backbone of America. This middle-class profession also offered good-paying union jobs.

65 million Americans live in so-called news deserts that have one or zero local newspapers.

That way of life is dying. It has been heartbreaking for me in the last 20 years to see friends laid off, pushed out of the profession they had given their lives to.

The economics can appear irresolvable. “The year [2017] we won the Pulitzer Prize, we lost $70,000,” Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times in Iowa, told me. Mr. Cullen, who won the award for exposing corruption in the state’s agriculture business, said the killer was losing local car dealerships: “I can’t compete with cars.com.”

Mr. Cullen has been raising some money—in the tens of thousands of dollars—via GoFundMe and bigger donors. The paper, which has around 3,000 subscriptions costing $74.95-a-year each, needs an additional 1,000 subscribers to secure its future. “What we really need is real philanthropy,” he said. “But that’s tough here, we’re a meatpacking town.”

Mr. Cullen is not alone. Between 2000 and 2018, annual newspaper ad revenue in the United States fell from $70 billion to under $15 billion, as advertisers migrated to those billions of websites.

“I’m thinking about running for mayor one day, but without a newspaper, how do I get the word out?”

The result is that 65 million Americans live in so-called news deserts that have one or zero local newspapers, according to Brookings. “We really suffer from not having a newspaper,” said RaNaja Kennedy, who wants to help jumpstart a newspaper in her hometown of Duquesne, Pa., a town of 5,000 outside of Pittsburgh. “It would help people feel like they belong to something, people want to belong to something.” Ms. Kennedy also has political ambitions. “I’m thinking about running for mayor one day, but without a newspaper, how do I get the word out?”

A tricky business model

Things look better in bigger markets and for more ambitious news ventures. But the business model remains tricky. The days are long gone since Warren Buffett bragged about the 30 percent profit margins at the newspapers he controlled.

But here there is a possible gamechanger: philanthropy.

“There’s a potentially bright future for major regional newspapers,” said Jim Friedlich, C.E.O. of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the non-profit owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer that also supports local news initiatives around the country. “Locally owned, civic-minded newspapers in Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Seattle and Long Island are filling in the gaps left by declining news organizations in the towns and cities around them. The key is that they have the right investment and the right support.”

There are now dozens of nonprofit digital-only newsrooms backed by foundations, philanthropists and individual donors.

Five years ago, the Philadelphia cable TV billionaire H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who has since died, donated The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com to The Lenfest Institute, now endowed with assets of $100 million. “There is an exciting trend of wealthy civic-minded folks who are investing in their hometown newspaper,” said Mr. Friedlich. The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune were each purchased by deep-pocketed local owners and are operated in the public interest.

There are now dozens of nonprofit digital-only newsrooms backed by foundations, philanthropists and individual donors or members. A handful are thriving just as much as any local print paper did. Mr. Friedlich points to the Texas Tribune, which covers Texas politics with a newsroom of 80 and generates $10 million a year in revenue, and to Spotlight PA, the Harrisburg, Pa. newsroom that provides investigative news content for free to 67 news organizations around the state.

Civic-minded, philanthropic ownership was the kind of fate Mr. Friedlich and others were hoping for Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News and other newspapers. However, Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund that owns a newspaper chain famous for slashing jobs and costs, appears to be in command with a $635 million bid after a key rival bidder, a Swiss billionaire, withdrew his bid.

Ken Ward Jr., a co-founder of Mountain State Spotlight, a digital nonprofit founded in 2020 that covers West Virginia, has partnered with the American Journalism Project, ProPublica and Report for America, told me he believes the solution to funding new local news outlets is tapping into local philanthropic networks. Americans will have to recognize that “a news organization is like the local health care clinic or the local library,” said Mr. Ward, who in 2018 won a prestigious MacArthur fellowship for his coverage of coal mining.

Americans will have to recognize that “a news organization is like the local health care clinic or the local library.”

“You’ve always had a business model crisis after the invention of a new technology,” said Andrew Pettegree, author of The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, a fascinating book about the development of the first news system in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The big picture is that we are still feeling our way through a massive revolution in technology. In the 14th century, the news was delivered in person in the town square. It mattered who the messenger was. Some were to be trusted. Some not. Sometimes, troubadours sang the news. Monasteries would send messenger monks to spend time in another monastery and deliver all the important news.

Interestingly, early news pioneers had high standards of truth. “The problem of news then was corroboration,” said Mr. Pettegree. “Sometimes in newspapers you’ll say, ‘It is said in Lille, that the King of France has suffered a major defeat. But we do not yet know if this is true.’ Fake news and sowing untruths was virtually unknown.”

Today’s Ben Franklins

I am fascinated by people building the new era, the 21st-century Ben Franklins cranking up the local printing press. I recently visited one such person, Steve Novotney, in Wheeling, a town of 27,000 in northern West Virginia. He is a veteran journalist with experience in radio and print. In 2019, Mr. Novotney started Lede News, which covers his town and surrounding communities in the Ohio River Valley, with $5,000. Today, he is bringing in $60,000 a year in ad revenue. “I don’t see why digital media can’t develop the way newspapers did,” Mr. Novotney told me. “It’s a business that can work, but you have to focus on the community you cover.”

Something like this must surely be part of the future. These mini-newsrooms are fragile, but you surely can’t argue with the beauty and essential necessity of something like Lede News—a real newspaper, with reporting that covers sports, politics, traffic and anecdotal slices of existence—springing to life. But one thing blocks Mr. Novotney from expanding his newsroom: A paucity of young ambitious local journalists.

“It’s a business that can work, but you have to focus on the community you cover.”

People like Meira Gebel are hard to find in West Virginia. The ambitious 26-year-old reporter did an internship at the Detroit FreePress. But the paper did not offer her a job when it was over. At Columbia Journalism School, “I was told the regular career path is start at a local paper and work your way up,” she told me. “But that’s not true anymore, the money’s just not there at local papers.” Now, she lives in Portland, Ore., where she is a freelancer, mostly for Business Insider, earning around $60,000 a year.

Of course, there is a part of journalism that feels voyeuristic, cheap, flimsy. But there always has been. In the classic 1940 film “His Girl Friday,” Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, describes journalists like this: “Peeking through keyholes—running after fire engines—waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if they think Hitler’s going to start a war.”

There is a lesson in that line. Journalism gets attention when it breaks stories about massive institutions like Enron, the Catholic Church and the U.S. government.

But they can only do that famous work if they are consistently read, and broadly trusted because they are out in the streets covering the community they serve. And while we should avoid keyholes, we should certainly peek, and talk to people, and chronicle their lives with as much depth, detail and dignity as possible.

Because the breakthrough journalism that uncovered the truth about Hiroshima and the My Lai massacre, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, the baseball steroid scandal and Harvey Weinstein, only happened because a million obituaries, city council and baseball game writeups established trust in the institutions that printed these stories.

All of it emerged from a practice: from reading documents, checking facts and doing the simple, holy work of talking to people.

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