S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Welcome to the ghosting news episode of Sleep Money, your guide to the Business and Finance News of the Week.
S3: It’s a heavy media edition this week because not only do we have the three normal journalists who are always on this show, that is myself. Felix Salmon of Axios. We have Emily Peck of Huff Post. Hello. We have Alicia Mansky of Breakingviews. Hello. And we don’t just have a journalist special guest. We have a Metro journalist, special guest. We have Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post. Welcome. Thank you. You write a must read media column for The Washington Post. And then in your spare time, you write books for Columbia Global Reports. This is your opportunity. Plug your book.
S4: Well, I’ve written a book about the decline of local news and what it means for our democracy. And it’s called Just as this episode of Slate Money is called Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. So, yes, you know, my publication date was very recently. And check it out. It’s a brief and breezy read.
S3: It is a brief and breezy read. I can recommend it. And we are going to be covering a lot of what you cover in that book. In this episode, we’re going to talk about the decline of local newspapers. We’re going to talk a little bit about these hedge funds who are buying them up. We’re going to talk about democracy. We’re going to talk about bias in news reporting. I believe, Emily PAC, that we are going to get dragged in a little bit into the debate about the discourse. And Barry Weiss. If you if you can believe it, we are going to talk about unions. We are going to talk about whether you should be publicly funded. We have so much going on. And I I promised myself that this wouldn’t just be a media navel gazing show, but it does seem to have turned into a media navel gazing show. There’s lots of media on this show for all of you media nerds. I hope you enjoy it. It’s all coming up on Slate money. Margaret, you have this amazing book. Congratulations on its publication. It is like many of the Columbia Global Reports books. We’ve had a few of the authors on this show. We love them because they are sure.
S4: Yes. Yes, it is. It packs a punch, I hope, in a in a hundred and five printed pages. It’s described as novella length. So that might give you an idea. But how long is a novella? Well, one hundred and five, I guess. In words or in words. Oh. Mm hmm. Thirty five thousand words.
S3: I ask this not just because I’m rambling, although I do ramble and unedited conversations. I ask this because thirty five thousand words I think is roughly the number of words that you would find in terms of editorial content in the Daily News to the newspaper. I don’t know if it’s it’s about I’m sorry, I’m just going. Are orders of magnitude in that range? Daily newspaper has about thirty five thousand words and you know, you can buy it. And then you stand for what, like a couple bucks, something like this. You can buy Margaret Sullivan’s amazing book at any good local bookstore for fifteen ninety nine. But that kind of explains one of the problems with local news. Right. Which is that it’s really hard to persuade lots of people to pay actual money for thirty five thousand words of content, even though it’s an enormous amount of work to put all of that together.
S4: Yeah, well this sort of the whole problem with the decline of local news, which is what my book is about and the book is is pitched shamelessly at millennials and and those younger because the title of it is ghosting the news, you know. So I try to put a sort of dating word in there. At any rate, it’s about the abrupt or not so abrupt abandonment of the news by traditional media, not because they wanted to, but because the business model disintegrated over a number of years and it took a particular fall in just recent months during the Colvard pandemic, because, as you know, it kind of kicked the legs out from under the economy and certainly from under whatever advertising was supporting these these places. So it’s been a really tough time. Which makes the book more timely, but also even more tragic.
S3: And you’re really concentrating on the on the newspapers here. Like, when you say local news, you do cover the TV stations in there. Absolutely. But like the heart of it is newspapers.
S4: Yes. But, I mean, the you know, I certainly treat with TV stations, radio and particularly with the new, you know, nonprofit digital sites. Not all of them are non-profit, but a lot of them are non-profit. You know, the sort of prototypical one would be the Texas Tribune in Austin, which has recently sort of joined forces with ProPublica, which is kind of like the most famous of these of these digital investigative sites. And that’s a huge part of the of the media ecosystem these days. But if you get into cities and towns of a more model of a moderate size, the newspaper has been very, very important and used to have a newsroom of maybe 300 people where you could send somebody out to every meeting and now they’re down to, you know, 40 people, some of whom are editors and producers and 10 of them are reporters. And you can’t actually cover the area anymore. And that’s the problem.
S1: And maybe it can also take a step back and kind of explain. So why is local news so important?
S4: So, you know, I think for two major reasons. And one of the reasons that a lot of people kind of can think of is to restrain corruption in public officials if they know that somebody is watching or if someone can look at a budget and say, that looks pretty weird to me, I think I’ll file a Freedom of Information request and dig down into it and hold this public official accountable and if necessary, shame and embarrass him on the Web site or on our in our pages. So that’s sort of the watchdog role. But the other part that’s I think really important, but not maybe as well acknowledged or understood is its role in kind of being the village square for a community, the place where people manage to get us a similar set of facts. They might disagree about what to do with those facts. But, you know, where they can see about a new restaurant is see the review of a concert, find out, you know, we’ll read a feature story, read an obituary. All these things that kind of knit the community together is a role that that the media plays. Certainly. But in localities, it’s been traditionally the newspaper and now much, much less so. And I would just say, I know we’re not on the numbers round yet. But from 2004 to 2019, more than 2000 newspapers in the United States went out of business, close their doors.
S3: A lot of them were we talking about. But some were daily talking about numbers. I guess I just couldn’t let you put that in perspective. 2000 is I wouldn’t have guessed there were 2000 newspapers. But how many newspapers of it there are?
S4: I think around 7000 left. So, you know, the base was the base was something like nine or ten thousand in 2004. Now it’s much less. And actually that only takes us off to twenty nineteen. And as I just said, 20/20 has been a horrible year for newspapers. Now these could also be alternative papers. They could be weeklies. You know, they’re not all the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example.
S3: The other number that really jumped out at me from your book was, you know, apropos the local corruption and whatnot. The local governments have significantly and measurably lower borrowing costs. If there is a local newspaper. Yes. Because the governments can get up to fewer shenanigans.
S4: Exactly. And now this thing is not what I’m going to say next is not a number. But it’s really interesting to know that people become much less civically engaged when there’s in a news desert, a place where there’s not much local news. They don’t vote as much. And when they do vote, they vote in a very polarized way, like they don’t cross the aisle. They’re kind of over here or over there. I’m sorry I’m talking too much, but this subject excites me. What can I say?
S5: You know, you’re supposed to be talking a lot. OK. Good, good. I just wanted to say, I mean, the the subtitle of your book is Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. And I felt like it was really illuminating to me to just read about how important local news is to informing voters and its civic role. I heard John Thornton, who the investor in that Texas Tribune talking about, like Americans have like four needs, that they’re getting met from media. One is like your needs as a consumer, one is your needs as a worker, your needs as an audience member like entertainment. And then the fourth prong is needs as a voter. And like the first three are getting met pretty well still through media, like we talked last week about the streaming wars and like all the places you can watch stuff. But like that fourth need the needs of voters is really the decline in local news is really doing a huge disservice to everyone. And you have that powerful example I was hoping you could talk about about Chris Collins in western New York. And what happened there is really fascinating and sad.
S4: OK, so Chris Collins was the first congressman to endorse Donald Trump. Big Trump advocate and fan and supporter. You know, his congressional district was and I’m using the past tense because Chris Collins was indicted on insider trading charges, was, you know, went through the whole judicial process and was sentenced to prison not too long ago. But after he was arrested and indicted, but before he came to trial, he had to stand for re-election. And Michael, my former colleague in Buffalo, where I was the editor for 12 years, is the Washington correspondent. He broke a big piece of the Chris Collins insider trading story. And so the people who, you know, were tuned in to the Buffalo News and other, you know, parts of the urban core were pretty affected by this news. And they you know, the district is really heavily red. It’s heavily Republican. But it ended up that Collins did win re-election. But by a whisker, he won by less than half of one percent. And the places that were stalwart supporters of his in, you know, during in the election were places that were not unserved, but less served by local news places where newspapers had gone out of business. There are some small but, you know, good Web sites in these areas, in these more rural areas. But there isn’t as much local news. And those were the places where the guy who ran against Collins, this guy named Nate, Nate McMurry, told me that he would go out to these, you know, rural districts and people in some cases weren’t even aware that their own congressman had been indicted. And he said that they were getting their news, you know, largely not entirely, but largely from sort of, you know, their Facebook pages, talk radio gossip, as he put it. And, you know, he drew a strong connection between the much more informed reader. And maybe this was self-serving on his part, the much more informed reader who voted for him, the less informed reader as he saw it. Who? Who stayed? You know, with it within party lines and and voted for Collins. So I don’t think you could say, you know, it it is a powerful example. It’s not, you know, a black and white example. But I think that one of the counties that’s affected is has been termed a news desert by the University of North Carolina, which, you know, has studied this. And it’s in New York State. It’s pretty rare to have a news desert. But Orlean’s County, which is in this district, is one of them, despite the fact that it has something called Orlean’s Hub, which has pointed itself out to me in recent days as we’re here. But, you know, I think there’s a tie here and it and it does speak to what you’re talking about, that citizens have this need to know what’s going on and what. And sometimes it’s hard to know. You know, it’s like you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes it’s like if there isn’t local news out there and being presented to you, you know, in a way that’s really visible, you know, it’s possible you wouldn’t know that your own congressman had been indicted.
S3: And that’s the big national politics. The one thing which I feel is super important when it comes to local news is just picking between local candidates should really have nothing to do with what party they are. Fiorillo Guardia. The famous mayor of New York said there’s no Republican or Democratic way of taking out the trash. Mayors and local officials, you know, run on very local issues and those local issues just basically entirely orthogonal to national left right things like demand neither once nor needs to have an opinion about foreign policy. And it’s like this is this is something where you you you vote for an individual based on who that individual is, what their character is, how they’re going to interact with the people in the community. And the amazingly powerful way of getting that across is through the local media. And in the absence of local, reliable local media, people wind up using this very, very unhelpful heuristic in order to determine who they want to vote for, which is just of a Republican or a Democrat. And it’s just a really silly way of voting for local officials.
S4: That’s right. And and I think that is largely what happened in this particular case. And it’s a it’s an interesting it’s a cautionary tale. So as these places go out of business or shrink, you become ghost newspapers that still exist but have much less staff. I think, unfortunately, we’re going to see a lot more of this. And, you know, people will be relying on sources of information that are not only less accurate, I would say, but also less trusted. People do say they hate and and mistrust the national media, but they actually have significantly more trust in local media of all sorts.
S1: Right. But I guess one of the things I wonder is, you know, people say they love local media and they want local news, but they’re not necessarily willing to pay for it. And I am you are gonna wonder how much of this also has to do with the fact that for so many years, newspapers kind of underprice their product and subscribers were subsidized by advertisers. And obviously now that’s not the case. So it makes people kind of even less apt to want to pay the real price of what it costs to produce this.
S4: Yeah. That’s very true. And absolutely. And so for the longest time, it was like advertising was sort of two thirds of of the revenue stream and subscriptions or, you know, purchases of the paper were about one third. But as advertising has dwindled, you know, let’s take The New York Times, The New York Times now, much more of their revenue is coming from the reader in one form or another, you know, mostly as digital subscriptions. And then, you know, to add to that, the other thing that happened was as we as newspapers made this very clumsy transition to the Internet, there was this whole discussion about, oh, you know, should we charge for the Web site? Should we have a paywall? Should we actually ask people to subscribe so they can read the the Web site? And the answer for a long time was, no, we should not, which didn’t not make any sense because people were were saying, oh, oh, I don’t actually have to subscribe to the paper and pay. I can just go on the Web site and read the same stuff. So now we have paywalls, but we’ve trained people to think that it should be free. I would say overall that you haven’t been a lot of great decisions.
S5: That was my question to you, was this come was the decline of newspapers completely inevitable or did they kind of like cock it up?
S4: I mean, some of it was it was foisted upon them. I mean, you can’t sort of you can’t argue with the Internet. You can’t say that, for example, that, you know, classified advertising was a big source of revenue and then Craigslist came along. You know that. It is hard to fight against. But could these organizations have been a lot more nimble in taking advantage of the strengths of the Internet and figuring out how smartly to get some money out of it? Yeah. Definitely a lot more. There was a smugness, I think, and a complacency that came from long, long period of time where, you know, the profit margins were like 30 percent, literally 30, 35 percent. And so it was sort of like it didn’t require a whole lot of financial acumen to make money at newspapering for a long time.
S3: I want to get to the news of the week, which is the big takeover out of bankruptcy of a massive newspaper chain called McClatchey by a hedge fund called Chatham. There are two big evil hedge funds in your book. Chapman is one of them. The other one is called Aldan, which is even eviler, if that’s the word. Aldan Capital is that is the owner to everyone, but everybody in the news media loves to hate. And I have to admit that I don’t understand how this works, like hedge funds, people who famously want to make enormous amounts of money and, you know, spend a little bit amount of money and then get back 10 or 20 times what they put in that kind of thing. And newspapers are notoriously dreadful investments. So how is it that these hedge funds are managing to outbid all of the do gooders and buy these these properties and wind up putting together these these empires of low quality journalism? How did they manage to do that? How do they make money doing that?
S4: Well, I think I can answer that. They make money by strip mining. So what they you know, a lot of these smaller papers are still profitable or still capable of being profitable at this point. A lot of them, by the way, are in big historic glee. They’ve been in the same big, impressive building for a long time. So the hedge fund or its management comes in and says, well, you know, that was then and this is now. And we’re actually going to sell your wonderful old building for a lot of money because it’s in a prime location. And by the way, we’re going to trim your staff to the bone and continue to, you know, take the advertising and subscription money that’s left. All with an eye to sort of next quarter’s balance sheet, not with an eye to sustaining journalism into the next, you know, decade. So it’s very short, short sighted, and it’s sort of off. It’s got a bit of a fire sale aspect to it.
S1: Do you think there actually is any intention to create a new model that could work, or do you think this is just funds that understand, look, this industry is dying. There’s still some value there. I’m going to take that value, but it’s going to die anyway.
S4: The latter, I, I they talk some some of them kind of talk a good game about were you know, we’re very interested in the future of journalism, but, you know, if you’re interested in the future of journalism, you will not be cutting the newsroom staff to the bone because that’s where the journalism gets done after all. So I think you’ve got it nailed with your second choice there.
S3: Yeah. I think the idea was a sort of economies of scale model, right. If you own a huge number of newspapers, then that they can all on the same crossword or something. But the fact is that there isn’t a lot of economies of scale if someone in North Carolina really is not interested in the local news from Wisconsin. And so you do need the local reporters. And if you fire them, you get what we have this question here from someone who lived in a lot of the small towns in different states. And most people are incredibly critical of the paper. It’s almost a local pastime to make fun of the paper in the errors and the typos, presumably all of these errors and typos and are a function of the underinvestment.
S4: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, right now, I’m out at my family’s cottage in western New York, which is on Lake Erie. And I get you know, as soon as I get here, I subscribe to the Buffalo News, which I was the editor of for 12 years. And I will say that it’s still it’s still a very good product. It is not full of typos and errors. It just isn’t. You know, they still do a good job. They were owned by Warren Buffett until last year. And, you know, managed to keep their staff up. Now they’re owned by a big chain called Lee Enterprises. I mean, you can’t you can’t really make a sweeping statement about all of these papers. Some are better than others. Some are very good. Some are very bad. And you know where their quality has gone down to the point where there’s typos and errors. You know, that’s the absolute death knell for these places, because at some point, even the most loyal, well-intentioned person is going to say, you know what, I think I’ll just watch cable news.
S1: So then is the answer that you just need Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos. You just kind of need your somewhat benevolent billionaire?
S4: Well, we’ve all gotten it right. Warren Buffett just sold off. All, as you say, is not benevolent. You know, Buffett, whose name Buffett was sure was a you know, Buffett was of a very good owner of the Buffalo News, but never, never in the sense of philanthropy. He didn’t need us to make, you know, 30 percent profit margins, buddy. But he did not want to subsidize. And, you know, I would say that’s true even of. Patrick Soon-Shiong in Los Angeles, who bought the L.A. Times. Well, you know it into some extent, I think probably of Jeff Bezos, who when he bought The Washington Post for 250 million dollars only, you know, E-, he said that what he wanted to do for the post was to give it runway. So he wanted to give it the time and the space and the money to figure out the the new model, which I think we have done. But the Post is not it is not a local newspaper.
S3: It’s national news, although it was kind of drifting in that direction before basis bought it. Absolutely. Anyway, well, I’m very, very happy that you’re at The Washington Post who are doing amazing stuff there. But we do have a question. I’m going to drag you back to your former job as New York Public New York Times public editor. And and so just place yourself in that chair for for one minute and give us the official aid effort.
S4: I’m having some sort of physical reaction to that. OK. My blood pressure has just which jolted up, but. OK.
S3: Did you I need to ask you, when you were the New York Times public editor. How many how many New York Times Slack’s where you are. Were you in the newsrooms like we in the opinion, this landslide?
S4: I was pretty slick. I mean, I left there. You only see slack. Well, it’s not that long. It’s not ancient history. I left there in mid 2016, but if Slack was happening then I wasn’t on any of it. And I and it would have been I think it would’ve been pretty inappropriate for me to. I don’t think the public editor would be on Slack an inside. But I did you know, maybe this sounds retro now, but I would get calls from inside the newsroom from like someone would go into a literally someone would go into a conference room. So their call couldn’t be traced and they would say, you know, you should know about this thing that’s happening. And so be like a hot tip from inside the building. That sounds so amazing. I even I even said I’ve never I don’t know that I’ve told this story before, but I, I even once I always had a great assistant. You know, the assistance at The New York Times were like they could run the place. They’re like twenty five, but they’re highly accomplished. People could run the place or will probably someday. And at one point I sent my assistant out to a street corner to pick up a bag of material that someone had it wanted, you know, someone inside the paper wanted me to have because they thought it was important for me to know about something that was happening for a long dead letter like spycraft deep in society. It was amazing saving.
S3: So so the big scandal of The New York Times this week is, of course, the the slack bullying or alleged slack bullying of Barry Weiss, who who left? And then, please, if I’d known what you would call it, public resignation letter. What’s your opinion of Barry Wise and her her resignation? And Emily, maybe you can give us the quick TLT view of this to the fore for the very, very smart people who are listening to this who have no idea what I’m talking about.
S5: Right. I was just going to say you should mention that Barry Wise was an editor on the editorial side of The New York Times who commissioned, mostly commissioned and edited pieces from contributors and occasionally wrote her own pieces and was often a target of controversy and Twitter trolling for her views, which she would describe as centrist, but especially on Israel. People objected to a lot of the things she said. And she also, I believe and please correct me if I’m wrong, coined the term intellectual dark web for certain academics, whether Peterson. I mean, basically, I think are like misogynist trolls. But whatever she called them, the intellectual dark web. So that’s who she is. She resigned this week and wrote this big letter and said that she was being bullied by her colleagues at the time. Someone had put an ax next to her name on Slack, which does sound bad, but. I don’t know. That’s what happened and, you know, the usual Twitter fuss ensued. Right.
S4: Well, it strikes me as like another example of something that if it happened anywhere else, no one would care one bit. But because it happens at The New York Times, it it’s elevated into this kind of, you know, extremely important. Oh, like almost Armageddon like situation when I. This is a little bit of an offshoot. But for the for quite a while when I was at the Times, I would get a lot of complaints from readers about the Middle East coverage. You know, you’re being far too the paper’s being far too pro-Israel or why are you paying attention to the Palestinians at all? You know, it’s you know, it is very, very volatile on both sides. And I I didn’t want to write about it because I knew it was like a complete you could just never, ever possibly, you know, get anywhere with it or win. But I did talk with one editor at the Times about this, and he said that people had the idea. A lot of people have the idea that if they could just fix the Middle East coverage at The New York Times in the way that they wanted it fixed, there would be peace in the Middle East. And so I. And so I think that there’s a little bit of that syndrome going on here where anything that happens at the Times gets elevated into this kind of, you know, insane thing, you know? I mean, of course, it’s terrible if if someone was being bullied. I don’t know that she was. She says she was. I, Accies are not nice. So but I do know this is all part of this larger discussion about who gets a platform and who gets to talk and which voices are being magnified and which voices are being silenced. And I don’t know. It seems to me that if you’re an editor Anarch and a columnist at The New York Times, and she she resigned. She wasn’t forced to resign. She had a pretty nice way to get her point of view out there. And so I also think that that the idea that somehow centrism is not represented on The New York Times editorial page is is simply not the case. I mean, it really the the editorial page, whether op ed or editorially, you know, kind of runs the gamut from center left to center right. So I don’t think there’s a big problem there. And I guess I would I would say to that, you know, I guess I think that it’s all part of this whole thing about the discourse. You know, who gets to talk, who’s being canceled and very wise, I believe, canceled herself. So I’m not sure that qualifies.
S5: So those are some random question I had is like today there was an op ed in The Wall Street Journal that was about how people who make like four hundred thousand dollars a year should be very scared right now because their taxes could go up and had like an illustration of, like pigs in a house clutching bags of money. And those were the good guys. And then I was just thinking how, like The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is so. Bad, but there’s never any of these dustups like you see at the Times. Is it just because people have higher expectations for the Tainos? I bet anything. I bet anything.
S4: There are these dust ups. It’s just no one cares about you know, there’s probably all sorts of I bet there’s all kinds of drama happening within the opinion pages of The New York Times and the opinion staff. It’s just that, you know, people don’t for whatever reason, people find what happens at the Times. Extremely fascinating.
S3: That there is this bizarre thing that there is only one op ed page that anyone gets. Yeah. That’s so worked out. Why that’s the case. I want to grab a few of the questions that people are asking here. S.D. Van Arsdale came in early on. We want to get to this one and saying other hedge funds, the only buyers who can afford to take on the chain’s debt. And I love this question because I get to nerd out. And when I get to nut out about capital tax and bankruptcy. In the case of Qasm buying McClatchey, Chatham was the largest debt holder and they refused to just wipe out the debt. They basically converted that debt to equity. And so they took it over and so was much cheaper for them to take over and they would have been for anyone else. So in that sense, you know, the debt does come into play. McClatchy was in bankruptcy. The question which I have for Margaret is one of the great things about capitalism is that we do have this wonderful process called Chapter 11, where you get to wipe out a huge number of debts and start afresh and and, you know, build a new. Have you seen any local news organization really take advantage of Chapter eleven, or is it more the case that you had things which were historically profitable, that the owners were dividend out lots of profits for themselves? And then when they stopped being profitable, they just gave up and the there haven’t been a huge amount of debt. SWIT Like, is this something that the bankruptcy process can conceivably help with?
S4: I mean, I think conceivably that Chapter 11 should be able to help with this. But I you know, as you suggest, I don’t think there’s been much of an example of it. You know, it it’s astonishing to me that still that, you know, the reason McClatchy got into so much trouble probably is that they they bought the Knight Ridder chain at the top of them at the top. You know, the worst possible time you could buy a big newspaper chain. 2006, you know, at the very top of the market, paid four billion dollars for a chain that was much bigger than it it’s than it itself was and then took on two billion dollars in debt. And so, you know, that has crippled it. And then, of course, 2008 came along and the whole thing fell off a cliff. So, you know, there’s nothing about those economics that can work.
S1: And one of the other issues I know with McClatchy was their pension liabilities. Yeah. And this is one issue. You do have papers that I’ve been around for a long time as well, is that, you know, back in the day of unionized labor force, you can offer these types of pensions and now they’ve just essentially become unsustainable.
S4: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.
S3: I really did want to ask the union question, because this is this is the slate money, I think it’s fair to say, has historically been a really sort of pro union shop. And we think unions are good in most countries, in most industries. Whenever I talk to anyone and then in the news industry who’s in management, they lay within about fifty five seconds, start complaining about the unions. You mentioned the unions in your book without a great deal of love. Is there any. Way in which the unions have been remotely helpful or can be helpful or they are an obstacle to making local news.
S4: What I think they actually have been helpful because they’ve helped keep some of the journalists employed and being treated reasonably well so that they stay in the in the profession. So at this time, when their ownership has become so brutal, I think that the unions have been have been extremely important and in overall positive, at least the newspaper guild. I mean, I’ve been on every side of this thing. I’ve been a member of the newspaper guild. I’ve negotiated against the newspaper guild, you know. And then, you know, I’m sort of removed from the whole thing now because I write about it. But, you know, I think they serve on a very good purpose. And, you know, I don’t I don’t think they can be blamed for holding back success, financial success in in these companies. I really don’t.
S3: We’ve got a question from Peter David Folt asking about the online only news organizations, which are coming up in many places to try and provide an alternative. You mentioned one in western New York, which I’ve already forgotten what it was. Yeah. To get post. You do cover this in your book, but your thesis, I think, correct me if I’m wrong here, is they do very good work, but in no way can replace the kind of societal functions that all of these local newspapers did. Is that fair? Are any of these local online places unionized?
S4: Yes, some of them are. Some of them are are beginning to be. I think they I would add I would tweak what you just said a little bit. I think they do very good work. Some of them are excellent. It is difficult to make them scale when you’ve had a newspaper and basically every small, you know, small city, every region, even small towns. And they’ve started to go out of business. The likelihood that you’re going to have a philanthropically or member supported, you know, nonprofit news organization that’s going to sort of fill the gap is is very unlikely. You know, capitalism scales well. And this particular thing, you know, doesn’t it doesn’t. But I think they’re probably the most hopeful thing that we’ve seen come along. And, you know, if there’s a solution to this local news problem that the digital only and particularly the nonprofits are going to be a huge part of the solution.
S5: When you talk about solutions, I was thinking about how journalism is this. Basically it it’s it’s a private industry, but it serves an immense public good. And there are a bunch of industries like this, right? There’s like health care. Maybe you could argue that, like the aerospace industry is is one such industry anyway. Those kinds of industries you would think would get lots of support from the federal government, state government and local government. I mean. What are the chances of this? Is there a way to make that work? Because it kind of seems like that’s a real that’s a scalable thing to do, like small businesses in in little small towns in the middle of America with are surviving a lot of the times because the Small Business Administration steps in and gives these places loans like we’ve already like. We’re already at a federal level, like helping these little places a lot in that regard. So why not do this with journalism, too?
S4: Yeah, well, it’s I guess it’s it’s something that’s being discussed more and more now. The reason that it’s never gotten much traction in the past is that news organizations and journalists have really not wanted to ever advocate for federal funding because they they felt like it would it would diminish and cut into their independence. You know, if you are funding is being supplied by the very people that you’re covering critically, wouldn’t that encourage you to pull your punches? So there’s that, you know, kind of push and pull. But you know, it we’re desperate now and maybe it’s time to look at it more seriously. Well, and to try to build some safeguards into it so that it could it could work.
S3: I have to jump in here and say that the Voice of America, which has been a very successful independent news organization with a lot of built in safeguards, has now just managed, like Trump has managed to come in and just dismantle all of those safeguards in a matter of a couple of months, something like that. Like right now is exactly the time that the solution seems to not work.
S4: Right. Yeah. No, I mean, that’s true. But then I guess you can look at, you know, the BBC or, you know, I mean, moving outside the realm of of journalism for a second. You know, libraries, you know, these are that they get government funding. But, you know, we don’t expect local politicians to be telling us what books can be on the shelves. But just wait. It may get worse. It’s we seem to be heading in that direction.
S5: So all you could think about academia. I mean, researchers and universities get tons of money from the federal government. And I hope are doing good work and not being independent.
S1: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I it’s possible, but I do think there’s definitely some real danger there. I mean, I think there’s a reason, you know, like I give because I think the the thing is, when people talk about government funding, I do often think with this idea of an ideal government and we’ve clearly seen that we very often do not have an ideal government. So you would need to create a system that in any situation, including the one we’re currently in, would work. And I’m not entirely sure how you do that.
S4: Bring back local journalist. It’s true. I mean, though, that the other thing that worries me about that is that, you know, when you start thinking about, oh, how are we going to arrange for government to be kept out of this process and let’s make sure we do it right. That is a long, time consuming process. That’s full of bureaucracy. And meanwhile, like every week in these organizations, you know, lots of outlets are going out of business. So by the time it gets figured out, it may be too late. And that worries me.
S3: Yeah, I think I think this was a solution which did work at the Voice of America. It did work at the BBC. And I think in both of those cases, it has started to fail. Yeah. Those of us who’ve been paying attention to the BBC ought to know that that is an extremely rocky ground right now and probably won’t survive. We should get this numbers round in here, because I know that we all have numbers. Emily Joester.
S6: Yeah. When I wrote this down, my number has letters in it. ECL Q Ex-Wives. What is this about? About the letter D y. G. IRS. Cutesie. Q Two and zero. Why are F two y and no to Y nine three P eight three k.k f.j. h x zero w L.H..
S5: Yes. Felix this is.
S2: Will you double my money. I want you to double when. One day. Emily, will you do that for me. Yes.
S5: We are taping. It is Wednesday and right before we were taping the Twitter accounts of Joe Biden, Elon Musk, the square app. Who else do we know?
S6: Bill Gates were hacked and they all displayed a menu, when you name it, and they all displayed a message with this Bitcoin.
S5: Benjamin Netanyahu, weirdly, with a Bitcoin address saying, if you really have, you send me, what, a thousand dollars in Bitcoin, I’ll send you back two thousand dollars and people send money. It was I mean. People sent money. So anyway, as of as of this taping, we don’t know. Kind of like what happened if this was like a regular hacker. Twitter was compromised.
S3: But it clearly was not a regular hack. It sounds like a movie high level about it, like the plot of a movie. The North Koreans. Yeah. So, Margaret, what’s your number?
S4: Three hundred million. So good. I mentioned that McClatchey paid four billion dollars plus two billion in debt when it bought the Knight Ridder chain. And now the sort of estimated value of the McClatchy Papers in toto is 300 million. So you do the math. It’s a lot less.
S3: My number is is zero. And I’m going to change my number. I’m going to do a last minute switcheroo here, because there’s a question coming in from Lowell Helices saying, what does enrollment in higher education journalism programs looked like nationally? And my answer to that is, I don’t know. But it should be zero. I like this. Is this. Don’t go to J school, beeble. It’s it’s late. We’ve just spent an entire episode talking about how miserable this this profession is. And it is entirely possible, as many of us know, to do incredibly good journalism without going to J school. And there are much better ways to create good journalists. This is my view. I’m not sure if you agree, Margaret. Not entirely. Anna, what’s your number?
S1: Numbers twelve. That is the number of public hearings and testimony that established at ABC CBN, which is the largest TV network in the Philippines. That’s the number of hearings that establish that it had not violated any legal provisions. And yet it has its charter has been revoked. So it is no longer going to be able to broadcast in the Philippines. And I just this is kind of another example to something I think you see often in turn when you have authoritarian leaders like Rodrigo to caretake and they want to silence the news. This is one of the ways they tend to do it, is they use these kind of little legal maneuvers. And I just think when as we think about how kind of journalism in media, everything moves forward, I think it’s just important to remember that.
S3: Yeah. New news gets disappeared. It has been disappeared across the Philippines. Across Russia. Across Brazil. In Brazil, they had this very easy lever they could pull actually going back to the discussion about state funding of news. There was this law which basically said that the government had to take out ads in all of the local newspapers to publish all of the banners. I know what the hell anyway. The government wound up effectively funding local newspapers in much the same way as the political races effectively fund local TV stations because they in the United States, because they spent so much money every election cycle on campaign ads. And then because the government was in charge of that, they could just take it away. And they did. And suddenly a lot of news in Brazil just evaporated. So when you see live news evaporating, sometimes it is the fault of Twitter and Facebook and Google. And sometimes it is the fault of governments. And sometimes it’s hard to tell. But this one, that’s easy. That’s a depressing note to end on, isn’t it? I’m gonna I’m just going to say that we should invite Margaret’s cat to come in and, you know, come up with a slightly less depressing number. Your PREARRANGE.
S1: We won’t we won’t end on my number.
S4: What’s your cat’s name? Can you see the cat? Sometimes we saw the cat. Oh, really? Well, the clicking back and forth Cat’s name is Ricochet because when he was young and he is no longer young, he used to bounce off the walls. Yes, it is so that his ricochet. But, you know, he feels now that that name is a little too evocative because, you know, guns, bullets and everything. So now wants to be known now as Rick O’Shay.
S1: Like a good Irish name. Yeah. Good Irish.
S3: So on. Which no. Margaret Sullivan, thank you so much for coming on this show. To your aging cat, Mr. Ricochet. Thank you. Being in the background to the whole blue who managed to put this live show together. And I can tell you that live shows are much more work than normal shows and live shows during a pandemic. A much more normal life shows you are all amazing. Faith Smith just mean Molly and Britt. The amazing question, Wrangler. We love you. You’re great. Thank you to all of you for making this happen. Thank you. All this Slate plus members who were tuning in live for supporting journalism is an important thing.
S2: We will be back next week with a show with Levi and me too. Good luck to you. And we’re gonna no doubt about sovereign debt. So great. It’s it’s it’s an or my dream come true. And that is coming up next week on Slate. Money.
S1: We wanted to just kind of ask about is somewhat the rise of advocacy journalism, because it does seem like, especially in the last four years in some of the largest national newspapers, that the line between straight journalism and op ed does seem to be getting a little blurred. It does seem like journalists are really speaking with a voice. And I guess you can make arguments on either side of that. But I’m just curious to hear your thoughts.
S3: Yes. So just be clear. When you say, like, the rise of I mean, obviously, Slate has been doing that since it started in 1997. Are you saying that this is you’re beginning to see that in places where you used not to see it and where you’re talking about in particular, primarily at times about the watch and The Washington Post, to be fair.
S1: I like it. You very often read articles that it’s very, very clear the politics of the person who wrote the article. And I may agree with those politics, but whether I should be able to see that so clearly in an article that’s in theory, not an op ed. It’s something that I definitely noticed more in the last few years.
S4: Yeah. Well, I think part of what’s happened there is that the Times and others like it. If there is anything like it, I have to differentiate themselves somehow from sort of the straight ahead Associated Press coverage of something that everybody has. So what you know, how can they do that? Well, they can do it through sort of more analytical writing. And I think that often, you know, you’ll see an analysis piece, you know, for example, by Peter Baker today covering Trump’s press conference. You know, it had it had a pretty analytical it had a pretty voice we feel to it. And Peter Baker is he’s a straight ahead reporter. He’s not a columnist. So I think that’s part of what’s happened. I think the other part of what lends itself to the to the feeling you have about it, which is not unfounded, is that, you know, how do we absorb news? We absorb news on our phones. How does it come to us? Well, comes to us often in social media or maybe we go to the Web site, you know, maybe we go to the app, whatever, but it’s kind of coming to us in this disaggregated way. And so you don’t really know is this thing I’m reading, which may well be a column or may well be a piece of, you know, into, you know, an analysis. You don’t really know. You know, it’s not like the old days where you’re turning the pages of the paper and you got to the editorial page and you knew that was opinion. The rest of it was supposed to be news. So I think this kind of firehose, the end and it’s not very well labeled, lends itself to the idea that, oh, my God, there’s just so much opinion out there. But it may well be that the opinion is, in fact, an op ed piece, an editorial, a column or something else mixed in with the news coverage. And the news coverage has probably gotten to be more interpretive, too.
S3: I would I would add two things to that. One is what you were just previously talking about, the discourse, which is be most boring conversation in the world, and we will try not to spend too much time on it. But a lot of what people you used to consider to be impartial journalism was really. Partial in very unexamined ways and bias towards a certain sort of white elite. And as you get more voices coming in and seeing the world in a different way, you see the world in a different way. And that’s good. Also, I am English and you shouldn’t listen to me because I don’t believe in impartial journalism even exists or objective chance even exists. But the other thing is that I work now for. News organization Axios, which really does try very hard to be impartial and objective and facts based and. The elephant in the room here is just Trump. It’s actually almost impossible to do fact based reporting about from without coming across as anti Trump. There was there was this thing which just happened yesterday where he was asked about why black people are still dying at the hands of law enforcement. And he said, quote, So all white people. So all white people. What a terrible question to ask. So all white people, more white white people, by the way, more white people. That’s a direct quote from Donald Trump. If I had retweeted that, which is what the president of the United States said, people would quite rightly and correctly have considered my retreat to have been a political anti Trump, you know, former speech. You can’t get away from that.
S4: Yeah, no, that’s right. And and that you know, that is part of why, you know, we’re seeing what looks like opinion journalism when it’s actually straight ahead coverage of a very, very strange situation.
S1: I think that’s right. And I agree that obviously there’s no such thing as objective. Everything comes from a point of view. But I will say, when you read like the Trump coverage in the Financial Times, it doesn’t read the same as when you read the Trump coverage in The New York Times. You know, it’s it does feel even if they’re obviously reporting on what’s happening and it’s impossible to report on what happened, what’s happening with Trump and not make him look bad because he does that to himself. But you don’t necessarily get the sense that the author is trying to make a political point. And I just feel like in a lot of these larger U.S. papers, you do see that.
S4: Maybe so. But, you know, then you see a light, then you see a lot of criticism of so-called both sides journalism, which, you know, bends over backwards for that fairness, which may not ultimately be fair. So, you know, a lot of it has to do with what your own political perspective is, what you you know, what you’re seeking in the news coverage or what you think is is maybe fair or not. I mean, there when when National Public Radio, which I think similarly tries to be very, you know, very, very straight ahead and, you know, trying to sort of get different perspectives, maybe to a fault at times. You know, there’s a ton of criticism of that. So I don’t know. You know, we’re in we’re in a very contentious, polarized environment and you can’t win.
S5: When I was listening to John Thorton again at the Texas Tribune, which I feel like we should talk about more, because someone asked about online journalism models that work whatever. But what he was just saying that things are so well, he wasn’t saying I’m saying things are so crazy now that people hear the word journalism and they think it means something liberal, like the word journalism is now associated with like Left-Wing and Liberalism, which I think is sad because and maybe it’s a function of Trump again, who is sort of like forcing the issue when we do straight journalism. It exposes him as, you know, what he is. And so people think journalism is somehow left wing when it’s just like, no, we’re just exposing the truth. And the truth is this guy is conservative and is like, you know, a baddie, a liar, et cetera, et cetera, corrupt.
S3: But this is this is also empirically false. Right. I mean, we just had a very interesting article this week on Nieman Lab talking about a bunch of local journalistic outlets that are basically just fronts for Republicans. And there is a huge amount. And we don’t see it a. Especially not like living in New York. But there is a large amount of journalism there which really does quite explicitly carry water for the Republican Party.
S4: As a journalist. Yeah. I mean, yeah. I mean, Emily, you make a really interesting point. And I think this is something that it makes me feel very sad and it’s something that’s changed a lot over my extremely long career, which is that, you know, you used to feel like I used to feel like, you know, I would tell people I was a journalist or a reporter or editor or whatever. And, you know, you’d feel like, oh, this was going to be seen as something really great and also cool, you know, to ordinary people. And now I think you say that. And if, you know, depending on people’s political perspective, they may have a very negative reaction to it for just the reasons that you’re saying. And I do think that Trump has had an effect on that. When you have the president hammering away day after day about the enemy of the people and you people are scum and, you know, you’re all very dishonest. That’s how propaganda works, right? You keep repeating it and it starts to sink in after a while. But I. Find that that low opinion and then politicized opinion of journalism is is really it’s one of the horrible things that’s happened, you know, since I came into the profession. The craft. I guess we’re gonna call it a craft, not a profession. I think you’re right. And it’s sad.
S5: It undermines that fourth thing, the voter informing the voters. Right. I mean, that’s the purpose, right? Not propaganda. Absolutely.