Just in time for the New Year, the newly profitable Washington Post announced it would be adding dozens of newsroom jobs.
That was greeted with universal delight from journalists, including some who recently became unemployed. Most observations were a variation on this theme: Maybe this is the sign that our industry is finally turning around.
I hope so, too, but I sincerely doubt it. The safest places to work in journalism have long been New York and D.C., but even that’s not a failsafe plan. After all, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and USA Today all announced layoffs not too long ago.
The picture in Michigan remains grim. MLive, which includes eight publications, did some major downsizing a year ago. Both Detroit papers (the News and the Free Press) offered buyouts for two straight years and laid off staff this time around. Smaller papers like the Lansing State Journal and Battle Creek Enquirer have, too. The Michigan Radio Network closed shop. And it goes on and on.
Most presses have been mothballed in the name of consolidation. Grand downtown newspaper buildings have been shuttered due to expense. Many papers (including some I’ve worked for) are operating with a quarter of the news staffs they had even a half-dozen years ago. It’s death by a thousand cuts. And it’s somewhat amazing they still put out papers at all.
As a result, lots of reporters and editors are doubling as sales staff –– at least on their personal social media accounts –– urging folks to buy the Thanksgiving edition or gift subscriptions for the holidays. Any breach of the wall between news and sales used to be verboten, but desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.
Journalists tend to be a self-analyzing bunch (although there are plenty of elite reporters who muck it up for the rest of us by insisting they can do no wrong). So there’s rarely a shortage of hand-wringing, especially in election years, over errors, tone, bias and missed stories.
Reporters have never been popular and they shouldn’t be. Those who go into the business looking to make friends are in the wrong industry. But there’s no doubt that there is a profound lack of trust in the media, particularly when it comes to covering politics. Most of this is a proxy war for warring ideologies. More and more, people are only looking for stories that confirm their own ideas and biases (and folks get rather snippy in their absence).
But I think that our withering (and dying) local media institutions have contributed more to this mistrust than we realize. It wasn’t that long ago that local papers and radio and TV stations employed far more people than today — and it wasn’t just writers and on-air talent. There were a lot more employees on the technical and sales sides, too: press operators, sound engineers, grips, classified sales associates, etc.
These were people who you saw at the grocery store or on the bike path. Many companies had explicit policies that you had to live in the community you served. So even if you hated the media, you may not have hated your local paper (at least as much) because you knew people who worked there. And if you had a problem with a story, you knew who to call.
That’s one reason why people trust local government more than state or federal government in surveys. (Although, ironically, far fewer people vote in local elections than in state or federal ones).
Social media is now how millions get their news, which has allowed fake stories to flourish. Convenience is one reason for this. But I would also posit that trust is a big issue. You trust your friends and family. So if they’re sharing a story, you’re probably more likely to presume it’s true.
Rebuilding our local media institutions could help rebuild some trust with readers. There would be many other benefits, including boosting local economies and better informing people about what’s happening in their neighborhoods, schools, township boards, etc.
But newspapers and radio and TV stations aren’t charities. They’re businesses. And so far, no one has come up with a business model that currently works at the local level. While Amazon saw an opportunity in acquiring the Washington Post, it’s unlikely that conglomerates will see purchasing the Escanaba Daily Press in the same light.
We’re all poorer for this, even those who hate the mainstream media with a passion.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.