From the Left

/

Politics

My Newspaper Died

Jim Hightower on

My newspaper died. Well, technically it still appears, but even when it's delivered it has no life, no news and barely a pulse. It's a mere semblance of a real paper, one of the hundreds of local-journalism zombies staggering along in cities and towns that had long relied on their once-vigorous selves. Each one has a bare number of subscribers keeping it going, mostly longtime readers like me clinging to a memory of what used to be and a flickering hope that, surely, the thing won't get worse. Then it does.

Our papers are getting worse (at a time we desperately need them to get better) because they are no longer mediums of journalism, civic purpose and local identity. Rather, they've been reduced to little more than profit siphons, steadily piping local money to a handful of distant, high-finance syndicates that have bought out our hometown journals. The Austin American-Statesman, for example, was swallowed up in 2019 by the nationwide Gannett chain, becoming one of more than 1,000 local papers Gannett presently mass produces under its corporate banner, "The USA Today Network." But even that reference is a deception, for the publication doesn't confide to readers that it's actually a product of SoftBank Group, a multibillion-dollar Japanese financial consortium that owns and controls Gannett.

SoftBank has no interest in Austin as a place, a community or even as a newspaper market, nor does it care one whit about advancing the principles of journalism. It's in the profit business, specifically the business of extracting maximum short-term payouts from the properties it owns.

This has rapidly become the standard business model for American newspapering. Today, more than half of all daily papers in America are in the grip of just 10 of these money syndicates. Indeed, only three high-flying hedge funds (SoftBank, Alden Global Capital and Chatham Asset Management) have captured your dailies in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Columbus, Des Moines, Detroit, El Paso, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Louisville, Miami, Milwaukee, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Jose, St. Paul... and many more. Equally important, these profiteers are snatching up hundreds of weekly papers meant to serve neighborhoods, suburbs and rural communities from coast to coast.

Far from serving your news needs, they're strictly interested in diverting the income and assets of our local papers into jet streams of cash flying from our economies straight into their private wealth funds. It's called "financialization" of journalism, but that's a Wall Street euphemism for old-fashioned plundering, which they do by decimating staff (reporters, editors, et al.), closing news bureaus, outsourcing design and other production work, shrinking the paper's size and frequency, nationalizing and standardizing content, selling off printing plants and other core assets... and drastically jacking up the paper's price.

All of the above not only removes wealth (including important jobs) from our communities, but also basic information, connection and voice -- transferring power from millions of us to a tiny circle of superrich speculators who don't give a damn about newspapers, our towns or us.

As a four-decade subscriber to Austin's newspaper, I can attest that the hedge-fund owners are as aggressive as airline monopolists at hollowing out their product and charging more for less. I hasten to add that this in no way faults the thousands of talented, dedicated journalists and production staffers of recent years who've tried -- against impossible odds of demoralizing ownership greed, ignorance and indifference -- to salvage a smidgen of respect for what remains of the press. Rather than a failure of journalism, America has experienced the plundering of journalism. In a short time, piece by piece, our Austin paper has been financialized into the SoftBank American-Statesman.

--Our Saturday paper has been eliminated.

 

--Round after round of newsroom and production cuts keep coming.

--Final editing, design and page makeup are largely done by computers and assembled by understaffed, out-of-town contractors trying to rush out multiple papers each night.

--Worst is the Statesman's daily substitution of filler and puffery for articles of substance and timeliness.

--A recent editorial hailed newspaper opinion sections as "the treasured hallmarks of a democracy, a modern-day town square." Then, the same piece announced that Gannett was shutting down most of the Austin paper's town square!

To go along with the cheapening of the paper, SoftBank has raised its price. A lot. Subscriptions were $48 a month when Gannett and bankers came to town three years ago. So far, they've doubled that to $99.60 a month (over $4 per paper), plus tacked on an annual $5 "statement fee," charging customers for sending us a bill! Then they wonder why they're losing subscribers and can't attract new ones.

========

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate, Inc.
 

 

Comics

Mike Smith Joey Weatherford John Deering Kirk Walters Gary Varvel Jeff Danziger