Something like this has already happened in recent years to local television news. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest broadcaster, is notorious for distributing packaged segments to all of its stations, and for having its anchors across different markets use exactly the same words, sometimes reflecting partisan positions.
It’s reasonable to fear that the new Gannett—which would own more than 260 daily news organizations, and hundreds of weeklies—might have a similarly negative impact on even more parts of our country.
Many dedicated, talented journalists are doing meaningful work today at both GateHouse and Gannett newspapers. I know some of them. In my role at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, I work closely with Gannett journalists I admire. And earlier this year, I was among the judges who gave GateHouse the top award for innovation at a major newspaper conference. Not for its journalism, though. Instead, Gatehouse was recognized for its booming and profitable events business, which it has successfully replicated in many of its markets.
However, the positive efforts of some at the two companies today don’t lessen the profound reason for concern.
Read: For the love of the local newspaper
There has to be a different path forward, one that doesn’t call for emptying newspapers like ATMs, or consolidating them under the control of a massive corporation. Every community deserves to have a place it can turn to each day to understand itself, to see itself reflected truthfully, and where its members can learn about others who are different from themselves and get the information they need to participate in our democracy.
One promising model is being tested in Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Inquirer is now a public-benefit corporation, owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Instead of maximizing profit for shareholders, the Inquirer can balance meeting the needs of its community with the need to make a profit. It can seek community support in new ways because it’s acting as a community resource, not a money machine.
It’s not a given that this approach will succeed. But I think it’s our best hope. I heard Terry Egger, the paper’s publisher and CEO, speak at a conference in Las Vegas this spring. He said he tells his colleagues that they don’t work for any of the company’s print or digital titles—they work for the region’s people. He asks them to ask themselves: How are you making their lives better?
His message to the community and his staff emphasizes the importance of a free press. It’s a message that he can offer unequivocally because he’s clear about the mission of his news organization. And he’s using it to seek and receive community support, from foundations and individuals.
It’s possible to imagine a very different kind of network from the one the new Gannett promises to build. Community foundations and leaders around the country, along with people and businesses who care about the health of their local communities, can band together to support their local press.