On Sunshine Week, newspapers cope with the dark clouds in their future

On Sunshine Week, newspapers cope with the dark clouds in their future

Image: Sunshineweek.org

It’s Sunshine Week, and things have never been gloomier for the newspaper industry.

This year’s annual celebration of public information has been more funereal than most, and I’m the sort who enjoys a rote walk-through of public records law.

But the irony of trumpeting public information in an era of diminishing media outlets is not lost on newsrooms, traditionally outward-facing places that, this week, have been forced to cope with their own gut-wrenching retreats.

The Pew Research Center estimates that the number of American newsroom employees cratered from 2004 to 2017, losing 45 percent of its workforce in a grim, bloodless attrition. Ad sales plummeted, whistling all the way like a cartoon bomb.

Whatever you have to say of the daily spittooning reporters endure at Trump events, the real danger isn’t in Washington, D.C., anyway, it’s in local communities and local newspapers, where reporters gather amid empty desks, in newsrooms built for twice the staff, to cover a Frankenstein beat assembled of several, not overlapping beats.

“While national outlets worry about a president who calls the press an enemy of the people, many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died of cancer,” The Associated Press’ David Bauder and David Lieb wrote this week. “Local journalism is dying in plain sight.”

In North Carolina, we’ve felt it keener than most states, even before the bigwigs at McClatchy jettisoned top-notch reporters across the state, including some of the brightest minds at the state’s two largest papers, The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer.

Journalists loath obituary duty, the macabre role often delegated to rookie reporters, but reporters across the country are writing their own obits these days.

And the maudlin sentimentality is appropriate. UNC journalism maven Penny Abernathy’s 2018 report on “news deserts” provided a helicopter view of a quaking landscape, one in which 171 counties in the U.S. – including six counties in North Carolina – exist without a single newspaper.

For newspapers, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Abernathy’s count is going to grow, if it hasn’t already, and communities in North Carolina – indeed, communities across America – will have to find ways to inform a general public lacking a bridge to local government and each other.

Our local papers are flawed, a mess of contradictions, and too often they lack the gender and racial diversity that will improve their product, but they tell the stories that no one else would tell, they keep a watchful eye on government actors, and never, not ever, has the public benefited from an unchecked, unaccountable government.

There’s a strong correlation between marginalized communities and communities that go under-reported in local news. Solving one problem may not solve the other, but it’s worth a try.

Everyone has a “solution” for the news industry: cutting waste, reducing inefficiencies. But if we’re to be spared, we haven’t found the solution yet. I’m a believer in any outlet that makes itself indispensable, that separates itself, first and foremost, by sterling work. But not even the best work can cancel bottomed-out ledgers, or save those publications without a Bezos in their back pocket.

It will require partnerships, generous donors, determined subscribers, and, of course, alternative forms of media, nonprofits like this one.

When I think about what we may lose when we see our local papers with a foot in the grave, I usually end up thinking, one way or the other, about my formative years as a young reporter in Lee County, where an old family paper called The Sanford Herald turned a devastating tornado in April 2011 into a seminar in community journalism and stellar leadership.

We’d written bigger stories. We’d written better stories, but for our readership, we’d never written more important stories.

Sure, the testimonials from shell-shocked, mud-spattered and battered survivors were meaningful – I’ll never forget speaking with a man who’d been tossed 50 feet into the entrance of a gutted hardware store.

But in the days after the television crews departed, in search of new blood, the paper was left an enormous task – to connect survivors with supplies, to amplify the voices of emergency responders, to find the hardest hit communities, to plumb the gaps in disaster relief, and, in some cases, to expose penny-pinching insurance providers.

What I’ll always remember too – until the day I die – is the unspeakably lovely spring weather in those precarious hours and days when the storm dispersed, as our staff poured out thousands of words, developed dozens of pictures, and, generally, sifted through the wreckage of a city that was eager to speak and listen.

There was so much sunshine.