Not long ago on Twitter, some regional politicians and media types ended up discussing an all-too-familiar topic: the inability of local newspapers to cover politics with the detail and depth that was once the standard. Then, an AP article castigated GateHouse Media—the New York-based publisher that owns The Florida Times-Union, St. Augustine Record and many other Florida media properties—as one of the industry’s worst offenders, a venture-capital behemoth that buys out papers, eviscerates them of assets to create illusory profits at the expense of institutional equity, and then ...
That’s the big question: What happens next?
We’ve seen what’s happened to the Times-Union: Great talent leaves, and isn’t readily replaced. Tessa Duvall is the latest, gone to Louisville, where she will thrive and use the skills she sharpened in this market.
Many great reporters remain. And they are under-resourced, to the point that prominent pols from this area are actually asking for coverage.
Take Republican Florida Sen. Rob Bradley (Dist. 5). He helms the Senate budget committee. He noted that the T-U hadn’t reached out to him. In years past, recall, Tia Mitchell covered Tallahassee for the Times-Union. Used to be a dedicated reporter from each outlet, in fact. Chris Hand, a political veteran, can recall a time when there were two or three T-U reporters in the state capital. But the model changed. Now one reporter (John Kennedy, who’s top-shelf) covers the state capital for all of GateHouse.
The problem isn’t that the reporters don’t want to go to Tallahassee. It’s that GateHouse, in an attempt to create shareholder value, makes value to readers a secondary proposition.
The other week, the Jax Daily Record ran a glass-half-full story, contending that GateHouse was doing fine making money on non-news properties. The lede was buried, at least as far as I was concerned: All that happy talk masked an ever-accelerating attrition of readers. Sunday circulation is down 21 percent year over year, well below 50,000 now for the big paper with coupons and comic strips. Perhaps they’re reading it on the Web. Wait, nope—44 percent drop YOY in page views.
The paywall can still be beat, but what’s clear is that some aren’t even bothering to try. Why? Because, after years and years of layoffs and cutbacks and compromises, brand equity has been debased in consumers’ eyes. The paper’s traditional base, the Olds, they’re dying off, cutting their budgets, losing their ability to focus on printed text, mainlining Fox News Channel like William Burroughs did heroin. They are not reliable subscribers for much longer. Younger people, meanwhile, don’t subscribe. They will follow a newspaper’s page on Facebook and then complain that the paper actually wants to charge them to read on.
In times gone by, a big local company or consortium of players could own the local paper, or keep it afloat. But even if “the community” wanted to save the whale, why would rational actors fuel the GateHouse model? That model explicitly advertises a drastically reduced product without any reduction in price, because of legacy costs and CEO bonuses and shareholder value. How do you fix that?
You’re reading this at the end of the First Election, and I’m writing it before results are final. If you’ve gotten this far into the column, odds are good that you’re politically engaged one way or another. No one would slog through what passes for my prose for any other reason.
Despite all the events and social media and hashtags and burner accounts for people on the public payroll, voter turnout tanked in 2019. A big part of why: The local daily is no longer a magnet for civic engagement. Fifty-some years ago, the Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal made the Consolidation case. Could the Times-Union drive that today? Not with GateHouse’s level of investment in it.
Television reporters are as useful as their institutional knowledge allows. Kent Justice and Jim Piggott have been in the game for a long time, and they don’t get swerved. But if you’re new to the game, new to the market, how do you know who really matters and who’s a rent-a-quote?
The fact is, we need a strong local daily paper. And market forces at all levels seem to militate against that being the case for much longer. We have plenty of food deserts now. News deserts, too. And the result of the latter is that issues such as the former won’t get covered going forward. Thus leaving people dumber, less empowered and more prone to exploitation in that classic late-stage capitalism way we’ve all come to know and love.