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A Year Of Bad News For The News Industry

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

2019 will go down as the year of the media apocalypse. Nearly 8,000 newsroom jobs disappeared this year in a flurry of layoffs, buyouts and mergers. Digital outlets like BuzzFeed and Vice eliminated entire areas of coverage while legacy media giants like Gannett cut hundreds of positions after a merger. And some local news outlets shut down altogether, leaving huge swaths of the country with no local papers at all.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now to talk about what happened and why it matters. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's been a bad year.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, it's been pretty crushing to see this play out among our colleagues and in our communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. We've seen some quite colorful goodbyes. I'm thinking of the farewell tweet of the OC Weekly - adios, expletive. Today, before Thanksgiving, our owner has decided to shut us down. For the last quarter century, we tried to bring good stories to Orange County. It's been fun, but now we're done.

FOLKENFLIK: I'm from Orange County. That hurts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's lost when a paper like that closes?

FOLKENFLIK: You lose a sense of community. It's something that tends to bind people in neighboring centers together with a shared understanding of what's happening around you, of what might be important, of what might be overlooked, of what might be outraging and what may be happening to your own neighbors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about the ownership a little because that's also played into this. We have two huge legacy papers, The Washington Post and the LA Times, that are run now by billionaires. Others are run by hedge funds, and those have fared the worst, right? Is some of this about companies and how they're selling the business of journalism?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I mean, look. You know, The Wall Street Journal is also owned by - or controlled by billionaires in the Murdoch family...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: ...Through a public company. Similarly, the Sulzberger family seems devoted to the public service journalism but is enjoying a robust time. But yeah, there's been, essentially, a focus on the bottom line. Now you're seeing these investment companies and hedge funds that are simply - seemingly, from the outside, adopting what was called a harvest strategy. And that is, you see something that's dying, and you try to pull the profits from them while you can, even as you watch them descend.

You know, I interviewed the head of the new Gannett Company - that's a combination of GateHouse Media and the old Gannett Company - a guy named Mike Reed. He swears that they're still investing enough to try to press forward and seek new advantages by being so huge - so many hundreds of publications - and that they're going to sustain journalism.

But I got to say, from the outside, you know, they just, as you said in your intro, cut a bunch of jobs. And he's not ruling out future cuts. In fact, the likelihood, given that they have to save some $300 million or more a year in their operating costs to justify the debt they incurred for this acquisition - the likelihood is they're going to cut many, many, many more jobs in the year or two to follow. So it's very grim. And you're looking at places that basically are extracting their own profits at the expense of newsrooms and at the expense of figuring out what might be sustainable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And let's talk specifically about local news. That's a trend that's been going on for a while, too. But we're seeing sort of the expansion of these news deserts.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. And one of the things is there are newspapers that are closed. You can think about The Vindicator - Youngstown, Ohio. It is far from alone. You're seeing newsrooms that once were 200 people that are down to maybe 30. You have maybe one person to cover six counties. It's not doable in any appreciable way.

And that's the way things go wrong - not only go wrong for news coverage but go wrong for communities. People can't blow the whistle, send up flares and say, hey, there's something troubling here about traffic deaths in a certain area, about the way in which infrastructure is failing, the way in which our kids are overheating in their schools because there's no way to cool them off. There are more crises than you can imagine to name. It's journalists and reporters who, by and large, are the ones who go out and either identify those concerns or amplify them to force public officials and corporate actors to take measures to address such concerns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Looking ahead, what do you think we'll see? I mean, this is a very difficult time. While we're seeing all these cuts, polls show a growing distrust of the media, in part because, of course, we're under attack by our very own government and our president.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, there's some countervailing things going on. I think as media organizations have come under financial threat, people have become more appreciative of what they provide both at the local level and particularly at the national level where you've seen digital subscriptions really help sustain The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and especially The New York Times. Smaller newspapers have had real trouble figuring out how to make that work, however.

I think you're just going to see that we're going to rely more on these national publications in a way to figure out how to help do project. You've seen, I think, green shoots. You've seen some really good partnerships - ProPublica. John Thornton, who helped found The Texas Tribune, is involved in a new venture I'll probably be reporting about in the new year that helps to find local news sites that are making a difference in states across the country. But there's no one panacea, no one answer.

You mentioned the mistrust, Lulu. The funny thing about the question of trust is that, actually, trust has grown, I think in part because of the kind of accountability that a lot of these organizations have tried to provide in the age of Trump, which has, of course, rejected the very notion of the legitimacy of the press in so many ways. And there's an asymmetrical approach to it that is - that really - Republicans - loyal, self-identifying Republicans have greatly increased distrust, whereas among independents and Democrats, it has actually grown to some extent.

But it's definitely a tension and a bifurcated dynamic that you're seeing going on there. And the question of trust in the media is a real one that we're going to have to deal with for many years in the future well beyond Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thank you very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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