By David Plymyer.
The award of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize to the staff of the Baltimore Sun for local reporting on the “Healthy Holly” book scandal was cause for celebration in the Sun newsroom. For the rest of us it has been an occasion to reflect upon the irreplaceable role of local newspapers, and how close we may be to a time when newspapers like the Sun are a thing of the past.
I will start with an analogy to current events. Think about how little we truly would know about the response of the federal government to the COVID-19 pandemic without national newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times. Apply that to the daily operations of state and local governments, multiply it hundreds of times, and you understand the part played by local newspapers in keeping us informed.
We learn many useful things about our communities from local newspapers. Nothing a local newspaper does, however, is more important than keeping a watchful eye on state and local government.
Most people know that the First Amendment to the United States constitution protects the freedom of the press. Fewer realize how strongly this nation’s founders believed that a free and vigorous press was essential to the success of what Thomas Jefferson called our “experiment” with the proposition “that man may be governed by truth and reason.”
According to Jefferson, “our object should therefore be, to leave open…all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
I spent many years in local government. Public officials concerned about the next election often are reluctant to disclose unflattering information about the entities they govern, even when under a duty to do so. Suffice it to say that, if they were left to their own devices, we would be told all of the good news but little of the bad. It often takes hard work to pry the truth out of government agencies.
A strong local press also has a deterrent effect. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard “if the press ever got ahold of that” when some ill-advised idea was under consideration. I have spent my post-retirement years studying and writing about issues relating to transparency and accountability in government. I am more convinced than ever that the watchdog function of the local press is indispensable.
A long slow decline
It is no secret that local newspapers have struggled for decades as circulation declined and advertisers upon whom newspapers depended for revenue moved their advertisements to cable and satellite television and then to the internet. A 2018 study reported that than one in five papers in the country had closed over the previous 15 years, leaving thousands of communities at risk of becoming news deserts.
Many surviving newspapers are shadows of their former selves. The number of newspaper newsroom employees went from 71,000 in 2008 to 35,000 in 2019.
Smaller digital news sites and specialty publications can pick up some of the slack left when the news coverage by local papers is reduced and there are some excellent ones in Maryland. But only a traditional local newspaper has the resources to assign a team of reporters to sift through documents and interview witnesses in the pursuit of a story like the Healthy Holly scandal. If local newspapers go away, scandals like Healthy Holly will continue to happen, but they will go unreported.
Impact on Baltimore County
Some long-time residents of Baltimore County who read this will say that, for all practical purposes, the Sun already has abandoned the county and that the county has been something akin to a news desert for years. Coverage was declining well before the Sun closed its Towson bureau in 2008 and reassigned about eight reporters and editors.
Certainly, local news coverage of Maryland’s third most populous county is nowhere near adequate, and there is little if any of what journalists call “enterprise reporting” – in-depth reporting that goes beyond press releases and news conferences. In my opinion, some of the abuses of the Kamenetz administration might not have occurred if the Sun had more reporters covering county government. With no alternatives on the immediate horizon, county residents are left to hope that the Sun not only can survive but can rebound to the point where it can assign more reporters to cover the county.
Room for optimism?
Suffice it to say that the current owner of the Sun, Tribune Publishing Company, has received dismal reviews on its management of the local newspapers that it owns. And things likely would go from bad to considerately worse for the Sun (and us) if Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that acquired 32% of Tribune’s stock last year, gains majority ownership. Alden has a reputation for cutting the newsroom staffs of papers that it controls to the bone and beyond. (Alden, which controls two of Tribune’s eight board seats, is barred from acquiring more shares until June 30).
A group composed of two local foundations, former Baltimore County executive Ted Venetoulis, and a chapter of NewsGuild, a media employees union, reportedly have offered to buy the Sun from Tribune Publishing Company. The group would run the newspaper on a model similar to that of the Salt Lake Tribune, which converted to not-for-profit status last year.
A statement by NewsGuild claims that turning the newspaper into a not-for-profit would mean that instead of going to shareholders in the form of profits, revenues “could be poured back into making it a better paper. This would mean more local jobs, better management, more robust news coverage, city and state accountability and overall, nonprofit sustainability.” One can always hope.
In my opinion, local newspapers should be viewed by their owners as public trusts, institutions that serve a public purpose transcending the purely private interests of the owners. If any privately-owned institutions deserve the status of public trusts, it is local newspapers.
I also believe that advertisers and ordinary citizens should treat their local newspapers as civic assets that they have a responsibility to help preserve through their advertisements and their subscriptions. No local newspaper, including the Baltimore Sun, is perfect, but the loss of a functioning local newspaper leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of a community.