For me, I suppose the spark had been set off on a ferry ride in Hong Kong. I was doing my suit-n-tie thing on the 27th floor of the HSBC building and trudging home on board a rather monotonous ferry commute. There was something on the cover of a Yukio Mishima novel that grabbed my attention — a golden temple, and for the entirety of the following week I looked forward to those ferry crossings filled with the waves of emotion from that novel.
That episode had begun a kind of spoon-feeding that I came to appreciate as a distinctive bond or pact between reader and writer. Over time, that perception deepened; it’s no stretch to say the relationship between the pen and its intended target took on a sacred quality.
With that personal vignette in mind, we will now turn from literature to newspapers: the pending demise of local newspapers to be more precise. The inkwells are running dry.
And if it were only ink! A nostalgic 3 percent of Americans continue to rely upon newspapers as a direct source for their news. The vast majority rely upon the whirlwind of digitized sound bites in the form of social media, local and cable TV in order to placate their need for the next hit of endorphins. The popularity of Twitter feeds are the symptom of an increasingly reactive society; we’ve ceased to reflect.
This is really another way of saying that the revered bond between writer (journalist) and reader (citizen subscriber) has been severed. This disconnection between reader and writer follows a pattern of fear-based tribalism and fragmentation. If you happen to be hell-bent on circling your wagons around a particular group — whether that be political, demographic, religious, or economic — what’s the point of in-depth new coverage? Particularly the kind of reporting that might jar your cherished views.
While not inevitable, this is the story of yet another pending extinction: that of local news. The paper you hold is the last of a breed. (Stash away a few copies to reminisce with the grandkids). Earlier this year, the Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, became no more, as did the Sentinel of Montgomery County, Md. All of 30 newspapers switched off their presses since COVID-19 hit. Since 2005, approximately 2,100 local papers went the way of the dinosaur. Most of the holdouts, about 6,700 of them, are sardonically referred to as “ghost newspapers.”
In as far as news coverage has a civic mission to embolden and strengthen communities like ours through a coming together of distinct voices, that mission has been hollowed-out to a mere “ghost” of our newspaper past.
And like so much of the hollowing-out of American society, behind the gutting of quality newsprint you will find a hedge fund manager, a private equity firm, a corporate board. Consider our new media barons. The corporate conglomerate Softbank Group serves as a typical example. In 2017, they bought Fortress Investment Group. Among other holdings, Fortress owns Gatehouse — still with me? — and Gatehouse recently merged with Gannett. Their financial pyramid of holdings controls more than 600 newspapers: that’s one in five dailies; that’s 145 million Americans in search of their next headline adrenaline rush.
By gosh, ain’t that exciting?
Meanwhile, the News Guild, the union which represents the country’s journalists, mourns and issues faint cries from a bygone era. The more vigorous activists among our prized journalists will soon be pleading with their parents for rent money. Over the last decade, the number of employed newspaper reporters and editors has been more than halved: from 71,000 to 35,000. The News Guild’s president, Bernie Lunzer, sounds like a valiant but impotent native chief, declaring that, “We will continue to demand that they (the corporate board) fund high-quality journalism.”
No need to fret. That cherished relationship between writer and reader has not altogether vanished, and in a sense has been expanded to that of publisher-advertiser-consumer. Nothing novel about that either. And come to think of it, that’s what I’ll stick to: novels.
After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Resist News: https://www.usresistnews.org/
Sophie Gilbert lives in Moscow, where she enjoys exploring the landscapes and communities of the Palouse.