Local news vital to the Copper Country

Recently, I read an article in The Atlantic that got me thinking about the future of journalism.

The story opens with a description of the Chicago Tribune, a prominent newspaper that has fallen on hard times. Relocated from the historic Tribune Tower in the heart of Chicago, to a cramped industrial block on the edge of town, the Tribune’s staff is a fraction of the size that it once was. The understaffed newsroom now struggles to keep up with the city’s news.

Over the past two decades, many newspapers have struggled as content and advertising have migrated onto digital platforms. But as the Atlantic’s article explains, the fate of the Chicago Tribune and many other once-prosperous US newspapers is the result of more than just a changing media landscape.

Last May, the Tribune was purchased by Alden Global Capital, a billion-dollar hedge fund that, over the last decade, has acquired more than 200 US newspapers. Although Alden is now the second-largest newspaper owner in the country by circulation, it exhibits no concern for the success of its papers.

Instead, Alden aggressively cuts costs to maximize profits as quickly as possible. As the Atlantic put it, “The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise.”

This is exactly what is happening to the Tribune. Two days after the paper was acquired by Alden, a quarter of the newsroom staff was fired, leaving the survivors scrambling to shoulder the burden.

Changes were apparent to perceptive readers. My dad, who lives in a Chicago suburb, recently described his frustration at the Tribune’s rising subscription cost and declining content quality.

Alden’s newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of competitors, a move that usually results in the deterioration of the publications’ quality and scope. Even if a publication eventually folds, Alden and its investors enjoy healthy returns by bleeding money from the dying paper.

While this strategy allows Alden to turn a quick profit, it is all but a death sentence for the newspapers that fall under the hedge fund’s control.

Due to predatory businesses like Alden, and to digital competition and other market forces, more than 25% of American newspapers have gone out of business while newspaper employment has fallen by half over the last 15 years.

Since 2018, more than 300 U.S. papers have closed. Others have become “ghost newspapers,” publishing little to no original reporting. More than 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 no longer had one in 2020.

The loss of local news sources is devastating to communities. Studies demonstrate that when a newspaper or other local news outlet is lost, citizens become less politically informed, less likely to vote, and less likely to run for office. The proliferation of misinformation increases, along with polarization, corruption, and government dysfunction. These consequences are often most severe in rural communities.

To put it simply, when a community loses its local source of information, people are less informed and less connected to their community.

Many Americans have no idea that this is happening. A 2019 PEW survey found that 71% of respondents believed that their local news outlets were doing well financially. Many communities also may not realize that their local publications are not locally owned. Today, half of all daily US newspapers are controlled by financial firms.

The Daily Mining Gazette has served the Upper Peninsula since 1858, but is now owned by a West Virginia-based company, The Ogden Newspapers Inc. Ogden owns over 100 U.S. publications, including The Mining Journal (Marquette), Daily Press (Escanaba), and The Daily News (Iron Mountain). Ogden itself is part of a larger family-run holding company that also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates and several Four Seasons resorts.

Ogden appears to be a good parent company, and does seem to care about the long-term success of the Gazette. Still, readers should know that their community’s primary source of print journalism is controlled by a faraway corporation with many news outlet investments.

On the other hand, given the struggles faced by locally- owned newspapers, the fact that the Gazette is owned by a large corporation may be a key reason why we have the paper. Although the Gazette faces many of the same struggles as other U.S. papers, it is still here, serving the Copper Country.

Thankfully, the Gazette’s local reporting and editing is done by a small but dedicated team of local staff, who care deeply about the issues that impact their home. And thankfully, we have a community that cares about local news, and supports the Gazette and other local publications. I am extremely grateful to the Gazette and to the other local print, radio, TV and online outlets that keep our area informed.

As misinformation propagates, political polarization grows, and the United States grapples with numerous policy and structural challenges, journalism is more important now than ever. Accurate and impactful reporting, especially local reporting, will always be needed. We must ensure that local journalism continues to serve our communities.

Nicholas Wilson is a Keweenaw Resident and a news writer for the Daily Mining Gazette.


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