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REX NELSON: The necessity of newspapers

by Rex Nelson | April 12, 2020 at 1:43 a.m.

During several tours of duty at this newspaper and a predecessor known as the Arkansas Democrat, I've witnessed a lot as a reporter, an editor and now as a columnist.

I've had the opportunity to attend and write about everything from Super Bowls to presidential inaugurations. I was at Ronald Reagan's final State of the Union address. I covered George H.W. Bush in Houston on the night he was elected president in 1988 and Bill Clinton in Little Rock when he was elected four years later.

I've seen this newspaper rise to the occasion while covering memorable events in Arkansas history ranging from Clinton's election as president in 1992 to a national championship in college basketball in 1994 to a sudden resignation of a governor in 1996.

When I returned to writing on a full-time basis three years ago, I'm sure the folks here would have been accommodating if I had told them I planned to write from home as most of our columnists do. But after 21 years away, I missed the energy of the newsroom and asked for an office that looks out on that giant room in the old building at the corner of Capitol and Scott in downtown Little Rock.

As the pandemic forces us to work from home, I miss looking out the door of my office at those reporters and editors. Those of us on the opinion side retain a strict wall of separation from those on the news side of the operation. Though I've seen this newspaper hit journalistic home runs time after time through the decades, I've never been more in awe of the job done by its employees than I am right now.

Each morning, I pick up my iPad and marvel at the depth of coverage being provided even though the vast majority of newsroom employees now work from home. Never was that more evident than when they were forced to cover not only the pandemic but also a major tornado at Jonesboro. Many of those reporters and editors are far younger than I am. I want them to know I appreciate their work.

Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. looks prescient now with his efforts to wean most Arkansas Democrat-Gazette subscribers off the print edition and get them accustomed to a digital replica.

Never has quality journalism been more important than it is now. Yet at a time when local reporting is crucial, the pandemic might speed the demise of newspapers who aren't fortunate enough to have visionary publishers such as Hussman.

"As words like 'annihilation' and 'extinction' enter our news vocabulary--or at least move from debates over the years-away future to the frighteningly contemporary--it's helpful to start out with the good news," Ken Doctor writes for the website NeimanLab.

"Maybe even an old joke: What's black and white and now deemed essential? Newspapers, of course--the communications medium that, along with its media peers, has been formally recognized as a public good by cities and states trying to determine which slices of their economies not to shut down. Factual local reporting is indeed an essential in an age of fear and misinformation."

Folksy Texan Jim Hightower is far to the left of me on political issues, but he recently had an excellent summary of what's happening to local journalism in his newsletter known as The Lowdown.

He traced how Gatehouse--the company that has killed newspapers in Arkansas towns such as Hope and Arkadelphia--was the brand name of a conglomerate owned by the New York-based financial entity New Media Investment Group. New Media's holdings, in turn, were managed by a Wall Street hedge fund known as Fortress Investment Group. The hedge fund was taken over in December 2017 by SoftBank Group, one of Japan's largest corporations.

"The New Media/Fortress/SoftBank empire got even more byzantine last November when it bought Gannett Inc.," Hightower writes. "This acquisition merged Gatehouse publications (144 dailies, 684 community publications and 569 local-market websites in 38 states) with Gannett's nationwide daily USA Today, plus over 100 daily and nearly 1,000 weekly newspapers. ... One in five daily U.S. newspapers now has the same owner: Gannett."

With newspaper advertising sure to dry up further in the wake of the pandemic, the future becomes murky in markets across the country.

"The mission of Gannett, Gatehouse and other Wall Street consolidators of news sources--as proven by their track records--is to maximize profits for their investors," Hightower writes. "Rather than practicing great local journalism, they've lowered the standard to mediocrity or less. They've gotten where they are today by flexing the brute muscle of Wall Street's slash-and-burn tactics."

He bemoans the fact that the daily newspaper in Austin, where he lives, is "a sorry example of what the public needs from the newspaper of the big, culturally significant capital city of Texas."

Doctor, meanwhile, notes the "terrible irony" for the country's more than 20,000 journalists who have "risen to the occasion, working the phones, filing remotely and venturing out into the invisible threat to get the stories that require the sight or even touch of other humans. All the while wondering: How long will I have my job? ...

"The question of the hour: How many journalists will still have jobs once the initial virus panic subsides? How much factually reported news--especially local news--will Americans be able to get in the aftermath of this siege. ... It is readers and their willingness to support the news who increasingly distinguish the survivors from those facing the end of the road. Advertising, which has been doing a slow disappearing act since 2008, has been cut in half in the space of two weeks. It's unlikely to come back quickly--the parts that do come back at all."

Thank goodness this newspaper has moved to a business model based on revenue from subscriptions rather than advertising. Doctor points out that it's "those most reliant on advertising that are most at risk." He adds that even though things are bleak on the advertising front, there is "a little sunshine in digital subscriptions--the closest thing to a path forward for local newspapers."

Doctor adds: "That kind of digital subscription growth is widely reported among medium-to-large local papers that do two things well: Fund a newsroom able to cover the local crisis in knowledgeable depth and have a system in place that facilitates quick and easy subscription signups.

I realize more with each passing day how fortunate we are in Arkansas that the state's dominant newspaper is owned by an Arkansan. "Wall Street's pillaging of local papers comes at the expense of our communities and democratic vitality," Hightower writes.

"What's left is fast-food journalism--a preponderance of syndicated material that can fill papers on the cheap. After decimating local reporting staffs, conglomerate owners turn to lists and click bait, as well as nationally written, generalized, homogenized and abbreviated stories designed not to educate or expose but to fit a news hole.

"The lack of local reporting on how corporate boardrooms and governmental backrooms affect cities and states inevitably results in more malfeasance, less civic participation and more public cynicism. Unsurprisingly, it also results in fewer newspaper subscribers."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 04/12/2020

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