I was getting ready to leave the Breslin Center on Michigan State’s campus on a Monday afternoon a few weeks back when I stopped to chat with a mentor of mine. I asked him about the Free Press’ summer internship and the best way to apply. He told me some names, but at the end of our exchange he offered the following after he asked when I was graduating, which is in less than 12 weeks:
“I know it’s late, but have you considered adding another degree? Maybe go back and get your Master’s. … I’m serious. Journalism will always be here, but its something you can fall back on.”
The Free Press is owned by parent company Gannett and part of the USA Today network of local and regional papers. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported a hedge fund-backed group offered to purchase Gannett but was reported early Monday that the offer was rejected.
Without putting words in my mentor’s mouth, I imagine the motive behind his advice was the potential news that his company could have been in the midst of a debilitating round of layoffs if Gannett’s desired purchaser tried to reorganize the company to save funds. That’s the real world thousands of young journalists face across the country and just because it hasn’t happened by now doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.
A prognostic piece from the Columbia Journal Review from spring 2017 highlighted the importance of Gannett papers as opposed to other national news organizations like Gatehouse and Digital first; that if many of the local papers in rural or unpopulated areas owned by Gannett go belly-up, a “news desert” would form, allowing many facets of local journalism that aren’t covered by larger publications (city hall, school boards, etc.) to go unchecked.
What’s put Gannett, along with other newspaper conglomerates, in such financial turmoil is the seemingly exponential dropoff of print advertising revenue as companies seeking ads are preferring digital ad space. The problem newsprint faces today stems from a gross underestimation of the internet’s use as the cyber age began, setting digital ads at a far lower price, never anticipating it would take away from print ads.
Late last month, a round of layoffs from Gannett came roughly around the same time as layoffs from digital publications Huff Post and Buzzfeed, though the ladder received much more media attention.
Argued best by Slate’s Jeremy Littau, the fact that the Gannett layoffs was not a red-alert story reflects the major problem facing American newspapers in that the public doesn’t care (mostly due to a vicious cycle of legacy publications cutting newsroom staffs to cover particular area x, particular area no longer cares and stops reading, publication notices a dropoff in revenue from fewer readers, subscribers and advertisers, and the publication makes up for the lost cost by cutting coverage in another small area.)
The answer, perhaps, is explained by Nieman writer Ken Doctor, who argues in order for local newsrooms to find a renaissance, it must double-down on its core values. Values such as seeking the truth, minimizing harm and instilling transparency in reporters and the publication, along with holding the paper and the subjects covered accountable.
Doctor argues if the press stands for its values, subscribers will come back to those publications that maintain integrity in its reporting.
I argue that it may be too late to save some small-market legacies and it may take a news desert for the public to realize the importance of local news, which is a disheartening future to realize. But with publications that fall, newer, more-digitally inclined sites that don’t ignore a changing landscape will rise.
Though my mentor’s words were disheartening, there will always be a demand for information. I like to think the era of digital information sharing is only getting started and that an entirely new way people get and share news can be pioneered and mastered in the near future.
It’s for that reason I will not give up on supporting local institutions. Because without anybody to believe in the truth, what is there left?