A free society cannot function without vibrant professional newspapers. In light of that truism, the latest dire news for the news business — that McClatchy newspapers, publisher of The Kansas City Star and almost 30 other newspapers in 14 states across America, is filing for bankruptcy — should worry every American who cares about our democracy. In this era of politicians who too often see accurate information as the enemy, real journalism needs all the public support it can get.
The good news is that McClatchy, a 163-year-old family-owned company that also publishes The Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee and a host of other legacy newspapers, says the bankruptcy won’t immediately affect its newsrooms. The bad news is, recent history indicates that will be a difficult promise to keep.
The chain’s bankruptcy plan would give it breathing room from $700 million in debt to strengthen its digital business while operating under the control of its longtime creditor, hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. Hedge fund control of newspapers is a concerning trend, given the funds’ penchant for slashing labor-intensive journalism operations to goose short-term profits. Meanwhile, the consolidation of thousands of previously separate, often family-owned newspapers under a relative handful of corporate owners raises dire questions about journalistic independence.
At the root of the problem lies the internet, which has flooded society with so much free information that getting people to pay for it via newspaper subscriptions is an increasingly difficult pitch. There’s a huge difference between serious professional journalism offered by newspapers and the unreliable or irrelevant (or worse) noise that fills so much of cyberspace under the “news” label. An information-inundated public doesn’t always see the difference.
A president who routinely denigrates real journalism while promoting internet lies doesn’t help, but this crisis long predates Donald Trump. According to a report last year by PEN America, weekday U.S. newspaper circulation since 2008 has fallen by about 36%. Think about that: How many industries could absorb the loss of more than a third of their core business in a little over a decade?
“One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know,” notes Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.” We’re seeing those worst impulses today from Washington to Jefferson City – but we’re only seeing them because of professional journalism.
We wish the best for our competitor-colleagues at McClatchy and we encourage their readers to keep reading — and subscribing. McClatchy’s problems, and those of the entire newspaper industry, are unlike other evolutionary market changes because of their unique threat to democracy. When the horse-drawn buggy gave way to the automobile, craftsmen lost their livelihoods and a way of life disappeared, but it didn’t endanger the healthy functioning of our republic. This does.