Thomas Peele’s friend keeps bugging him. “Are you going to win?” the friend writes over Facebook. “I think you’re going to win.” “What are you going to do when you win?” “Shut up,” Peele thinks. He’s an old-school watchdog reporter. Blue eyes that bore into you. Fewer words, better.
It’s a Monday in April, and Peele and his colleagues at the East Bay Times, a newspaper in Oakland, California, are waiting to find out whether they’ve won the biggest award in journalism. For five months the paper has been reporting on the fallout of a fire that killed 36 people when it ripped through an Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship. Illegally converted into artist residences, the building had a tangled layout that made it hard to escape. The Times’ coverage has painted the tragedy—Oakland’s deadliest fire—as symptomatic of the city’s lax fire-code enforcement and its affordable-housing crisis.
Peele wonders if he should have bought a case of champagne; he saw a sale at the grocery store over the weekend. No, best he didn’t. You don’t want to jinx these things. They probably won’t win anyway. He tells himself the newsroom would have gotten a heads-up, right? While he sits in his cubicle, psyching himself down for defeat, two colleagues, David DeBolt and Matthias Gafni, busy themselves with a story about another fire, one that killed four people.
Finally, a few minutes before noon, the staff gathers around Gafni’s laptop for the announcement: “For coverage of the fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting goes to the staff of the East Bay Times.” Exultation. Now champagne is needed, stat. And cigars. As the reporters saunter down Broadway with stogies, Peele runs into a friend who starts shouting at random people on the street: “These guys just won the Pulitzer Prize!” he tells construction workers. “These guys just won the Pulitzer Prize!”
A week later, Bay Area News Group, the paper’s corporate owner, announces it will be firing many of its copy editors and designers. This comes as a surprise to approximately nobody.
Since the beginning of this century, as much as 80 percent of the money that used to go to newspaper advertising has ended up not far from the East Bay Times’ offices—in the pockets of tech giants reposing in Mountain View and Menlo Park. Has this upended media? Yes. For the worse? That’s the better question.
It was for only a relatively brief period, roughly between the 1890s and 1950s, that newspapers controlled advertising in this country. Because newspapers owned the printing presses, local businesses had no choice but to take out ads in their pages. There was nothing exactly natural about this arrangement, and there was nothing exactly natural about what happened next: the emergence of TV and then, more consequentially, the internet. By temperament slow to adapt, journalists did little to attract fast-moving advertisers away from the new data-harvesting potential of Google’s AdSense and DoubleClick and, later, Facebook.
Even when papers finally went online and started making gains in digital advertising—thanks in part to reader-alienating innovations like clickbait—it wasn’t enough to make up for the losses in print ads. Between 2004 and 2016, Google’s revenue—most of which comes from advertising—grew from $3.2 billion to $89.5 billion. In that same period, the amount local businesses spent on print newspaper ads fell from $44.4 billion to $12.9 billion. According to Borrell Associates, a Virginia-based research firm that tracks local ad spending, within five years very few local papers will have the resources to publish daily. Today nearly all new digital ad revenue goes to Google and Facebook, leaving only crumbs for the rest of the publishing industry.
But something happened in November 2016 that has the potential to disrupt this trend yet again. After Donald Trump’s election as president, liberal pols, conservative blowhards, and media magoos turned their ire on Silicon Valley, excoriating the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter for their role in disseminating preelection (dis)information. In October a Senate panel grilled executives from all three companies about political ads bought by a pro-Russia agency—some of which reached more than 126 million Facebook users.
Of course, tech is never without “fixes.” Google announced it had tweaked its search algorithm to suppress bogus stories. Craigslist’s Craig Newmark debuted WikiTribune, billed as a “platform for evidence-based journalism.” Facebook launched the Facebook Journalism Project to work more closely with publishers. In a 5,500-word manifesto, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “There is more we must do to support the news industry,” including “growing local news.” It seemed as if it had dawned on Dr. Frankenstein what, exactly, he had wrought. Seemed.
Perhaps these initiatives will benefit big-name institutions like The New York Times or The Washington Post (which Amazon CEO and richest man in the world Jeff Bezos bought in 2013), outlets with the clout and resources to play ball with Big Tech while surviving on flashy partnerships and paywalls that require subscribers to kick them some money for digital access. It’s less clear how Zuckerbergian interventions will “grow” local reporting like that of the East Bay Times—especially when seemingly future-proofed digital brands like DNAinfo and Gothamist (and satellites SFist, LAist, and so on) can’t survive. Earlier this year, after reporters at those outlets voted to unionize, their parent company’s owner shut them all down, citing the “tremendous effort and expense” needed to keep them running.
Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt once told The New York Times’ Miguel Helft that he thought Google had a “moral imperative” to reimburse publishers beset by falling revenue. That was in 2009. No such reimbursements have been made. (In 2014 Google did launch an ad exchange with a consortium of local newspapers.) Only now are journalists more forcefully trying to hold Google and Facebook to account. In a recent interview with Time, Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, said: “I think it’s high time that Facebook and Google created a vast philanthropy fund to fund journalism. They have stolen so much.”
In July the News Media Alliance, which represents almost 2,000 news outlets, asked Congress to allow it to negotiate with Google and Facebook. (Doing so without congressional approval would violate antitrust regulations.) David Chavern, president and CEO of the group, hopes tech and the media can come to agreements over “revenue sharing, data sharing, subscription support, and brand support.”
So far this year Alphabet has spent $13.6 million on lobbying, not a dime of which seems to be going to support Chavern’s cause. “I would be surprised if lobbyists for Google and Facebook would be supportive” of the alliance’s petition, he says. “I haven’t asked them.” Inquiries to two dozen lobbying groups that worked for Google in the quarter after the petition, and seven groups for Facebook, yielded little. “This has not come across my radar at all,” said one Google lobbyist who had heard of the petition, “and they’re not shy about things we need to work on.”
So one day in June I fly down to Phoenix to discover the future of local news. At the self-contained fiefdom that is the JW Marriott Desert Ridge, the Institute for Nonprofit News is holding its annual conference. This is some serious next-level journalistic nerdery. Editors and publishers from nonprofit news startups across the country are gathered to talk shop. Many in the industry think the future of local news is nonprofit. The conference feels like the dawn of … something. It’s surprisingly upbeat. As one attendee puts it, “It’s like being in television in 1947”—except without the promise of oodles of moola. While it’s true that the future of the East Bay Times and other local papers looks grim, maybe something here can save them.
That something might be found in the Grand Sonoran I room, where Josh Mabry and Dorrine Mendoza, representatives of the Facebook Journalism Project, give a presentation to journalists involved in nonprofit ventures. It mostly amounts to an Instant Articles sales pitch—using Facebook as a publisher for your content. During the Q&A, I ask the Facebook reps a version of the Miguel Helft question: Given that Facebook is one of two companies reaping nearly all new digital ad revenue, are there any considerations within the company to give some of that revenue back to content creators? A few people start clapping. Mabry seems slightly taken aback. He begins to talk about how great it is that his company allows publishers to collect ad money from videos on Facebook. He also mentions the revenue possible through branded content and sponsored content—essentially ads designed to look like they could be articles—on Facebook. The Q&A moves on.
Afterward I buttonhole Mabry to press him on how, exactly, local news providers—modest outfits like the East Bay Times—can take advantage of the opportunities Facebook provides. I suggest that videos and sponsored content provide substantial revenue only if a publisher is a New York Times, which has a team of professional videographers as well as T Brands, a studio staffed by people whose sole job is to create sponsored content. I posit that this formula won’t work for a vast majority of papers across the country. You don’t want your local health care reporter writing Merck ad copy. Nor is it very useful to have your city hall reporter taking shitty video of the Pumpkin Festival that nobody will watch by virtue of its very shittiness. He concedes that I do have a point. Then he starts talking about automated videos Facebook produces that wish you a happy birthday.
San Jose. Warm, springy day in August. Trees, leafy. Laptops in Starbucks a-taptaptapping away. Around the corner from Bay Area News Group HQ, Hank Coca’s Downtown Furniture store is having a sale. Everything up to 80 percent off! In April, Hank died. Now the shop he founded in 1957 is closing. Somehow the fate of Hank C’s Downtown Furniture seems not entirely unrelated to the state of the East Bay Times. Symptoms of the same malady.
Neil Chase, executive editor of Bay Area News Group (which we can call BANG!), sits in his office in a purple-gray button-down, sleeves rolled up. Front pages of the San Jose Mercury News—JFK assassination, 9/11, Obama election—grace the wall. In April 2016, BANG merged the San Jose and San Mateo County papers into one—now it’s just called the Mercury News. At the same time, the company announced that four other papers—the Oakland Tribune; the Contra Costa Times, in Walnut Creek; the Daily Review, in Hayward; and The Argus, in Fremont—would become the East Bay Times. That left one paper for all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, which combined are home to more than 2.7 million people, about the size of Chicago.
With declines in both print advertising and circulation, Chase says he’s focused on increasing revenue through digital subscriptions. Like every other paper across the nation, the income from digital ads doesn’t offset the fall in print ads and subscriptions. BANG is currently working to roll out a metered system in the coming weeks that will limit the number of articles nonsubscribers can see online—something many (mostly larger) papers across the country have already done, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Flipping through that day’s paper, Chase talks about sponsored print ads and points to the weather page, on which a termite-removal company has placed an advertisement. “Their business has to do with weather, so instead of just running their ads all over the paper, let’s let them sponsor the weather page, do some messaging that ties their product into weather,” he says. Perhaps your picture of innovation doesn’t exactly resemble a print ad on the weather page (itself quite an anachronism, considering the weather app on your phone). Chase admits the demands of the newsroom aren’t conducive to long-term thinking. “We’re not planning for 400 years from now,” he says. “We’re planning for next Tuesday.” He doesn’t have much choice.
BANG is owned by Digital First Media, headquartered in Denver and owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund headquartered in New York and owned by Randall Duncan Smith. Nobody owns Mr. Smith. In fact, nobody seems to know much about Mr. Smith. One of the few stories about him—a 1999 Village Voice takedown—quotes an acquaintance of his: “‘Randy is so rich he’s the kind of guy who divests himself every couple of years,’ so he doesn’t make the lists of the world’s richest people.” Two years ago, Alden tried to sell off Digital First to Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm, for $400 million. Apollo declined. When I call Alden’s offices, the person who answers does a good job sounding sincere. “I know that Randy will definitely not give you an interview,” she says. “I don’t think anyone will talk to you.” This turns out to be true.
Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor and digital media startup founder who lectures at UC Berkeley, wonders how much longer Digital First can last. “They’re running an ever-leaner business, and one of the signposts of that was the elimination of the individual papers,” he says, referring to the consolidation of the regional papers into the East Bay Times. “The question is, if this wasn’t a good enough solution to sustain the level of profitability that they’re looking for, at what point is it more trouble than it’s worth?”
At some point, it’s worth asking who, besides journalists, actually cares about newspapers. Most Americans don’t read one. Only 20 percent of adults in the US get news regularly from a print paper, the Pew Research Center found last year; that drops to 5 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds. As Mutter argues, newspapers have “lost readership, revenue, and relevance.”
There was a time not too long ago when you might get off work and buy a paper to see how your stocks performed. “Now,” Mutter says, “I sit there all day long poking at my iPhone to see whether Apple stock is up 2 cents or down 2 cents.” If you glance through a smattering of local papers—in print or online—you’ll see that a lot of what they do hasn’t changed in 30-plus years. Why do so many local papers, the East Bay Times included, still have international and national sections, when the Post or the Times are a tap away? Why still include travel sections when TripAdvisor, NatGeo Traveler, and any number of other sites are easily accessible (and better)? Why does the business section still publish stock quotes when they’re out of date by the time they’re printed? Why why why?
Yet to dismiss newspapers as dinosaurs that deserve to die is to see a paper as somehow apart from the community it serves. Consider the Ghost Ship. After the fire, a civil suit brought by victims’ parents against the warehouse owners cited reporting done by the East Bay Times; the paper remains the only news outlet aggressively covering the incident. In December 2016 The New York Times made a big deal of the team of reporters it was sending to cover the tragedy in a series of stories; this year it has run two pieces in the series.
Even with bureaus in other cities—increasingly a rarity—national outlets simply can’t replace a local paper’s roots, argues DeBolt, one of the reporters on the Ghost Ship fire. “I have connections to the Ghost Ship through friends who lost friends,” he says. “They wanted the stories told by people who understand Oakland, who live here, who are their neighbors. Not by somebody who’s flying in from New York. Not to knock them, but we live here. We live and breathe the air, we know the neighborhoods, we know the people.” So what happens to a community in which nobody pays a DeBolt or Peele? What happens to a society in which an independent source of information simply disappears?
Up the road, in Oregon, there’s a man who studies such questions for a living. Lee Shaker, a professor at Portland State University, is one of a few American communications scholars to focus on local newspapers. (“From an academic perspective it’s not that great a career move,” he admits.) In 2009 he decided to look at what effect, if any, a newspaper’s closure had on its community. The year before, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shuttered its print operations and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News went out of business. (That left The Seattle Times and The Denver Post.) He compared 2008 and 2009 government data that asked citizens a range of “civic engagement” questions, from whether they had contacted a public official in the previous year to how often they shared a meal with family members.
“What my research showed was that, in those two cities, civic engagement declined in a statistically significant way from 2008 to 2009, but across basically the other largest 20 cities in the United States there was no significant decrease in civic engagement,” Shaker says. This held true even after controlling for variables such as differences in the city’s economies. “Only in those two cities was there any evidence that civic engagement declined.” This suggested a causal relationship. “Other cities had no newspaper closures. Those cities had newspaper closures.”
Critically, Shaker’s research suggests that the decline in local news affects far more people than just those in the media. “You can kind of see this cascading series of consequences,” Shaker says. Here’s the scenario, as he describes it: “If people don’t get local news, they don’t know what’s going on in their community. If they don’t know what’s going on in their community, they don’t get involved in their community. If they’re not involved in their community, and others aren’t involved in their community, their government may not actually function very well. If people aren’t involved at the local level, and they don’t know what’s going on, and the government’s not performing at the local level, they start to lose trust. And when they start to lose trust, they start to have concerns about whether or not democracy is working, whether the government is working. And those feelings are naturally then extended to the national government.”
Other findings support such a claim. According to a 2015 study by Jennifer Lawless of American University and Danny Hayes of George Washington University, less—and less substantial—coverage of local elections has a deleterious impact on political participation and knowledge. The results suggest this holds true across the spectrum of political knowledge, even for news junkies. "I think there are damning consequences for civic engagement," Lawless says about the decline of local papers. "We're moving further away from full democratic participation and accountability."
In other words, it's possible that further losses in news at the local level could lead to even greater misunderstanding and confusion about what's going on around you. What’s happening in your town, your life. Frustration deepens, isolation increases. You take your anger out at the polls. Or nowhere at all.
Such mistrust in governmental institutions has been building for some time now. Recently a sense of discontent seems to have reached fever pitch in Oakland. In the spring an East Bay Times editorial—citing reporting by Peele, Gafni, and DeBolt that revealed 80 percent of fire code violations referred by firefighters were never inspected—began: “There seems no end to Oakland’s government dysfunction.”
Four days earlier, columnist Otis R. Taylor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “Oakland appears to be breaking down,” expressing frustration at the city’s growing tent communities, house fires, crumbling roads, and police department scandals. Days before the city’s deadline to approve its budget, protesters disrupted the city council meeting, forcing a delay. Some chained themselves to the dais. At the last council meeting before the summer recess, I witnessed members of a local union march through City Hall chanting, “What do we want? A people’s budget!”
Whatever fate befalls the East Bay Times is one that will play out in major cities and small towns across the country. Digital First owns the Orange County Register, in Santa Ana, California; the Daily Record, in Cañon City, Colorado; the Press & Guide, in Dearborn, Michigan; The Record, in Troy, New York; the Sentinel & Enterprise, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts; The Trentonian, in Trenton, New Jersey; The Morning Journal, in Lorain, Ohio; The Reporter, in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Dozens more.
It comes back to advertising—or its lack. These papers would have once been propped up by local businesses, a symbiosis that sustained commerce and journalism alike. Businesses such as Hank Coca’s Downtown Furniture. The quickening death of America’s newspapers, and the communities around them, may be one of the more profound stories of our time—and it’s one the papers themselves are neither inclined nor equipped to cover. “The East Bay Times is a pillar of local journalism for much of the Bay Area,” says Carl Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents employees at the Times, among other papers. “And if the pillar is not there, it sounds like something’s going to collapse, doesn’t it?”
Nobody has bothered to change the sign. On a drab office building in downtown Oakland, “Oakland Tribune,” in Old English font, looks out on Broadway. It's a morning in May—more than a year since the paper became the East Bay Times.
Inside someone has tied balloons (Congratulations!), now dimpled, to a champagne bottle, now empty. The newsroom is nearly empty as well. Peele and DeBolt sit in a long, sunlit conference room. DeBolt says he’s noticed a decline in the Times’ ability to cover local government since he started working for BANG five years ago. Peele says ongoing coverage of the Ghost Ship fire—delving into what the fire department knew and when, for instance—has taken up all his time. “This other shit, you know, I can’t do it,” he says. “A politician who I pretty much had figured out was a crook has skated for the last five months because there was nobody next to me to do this.” And yet, in 2017, that nagging question persists: Does anyone care? DeBolt insists readers still find value in the local news the paper provides. “I meet people and they go, ‘Oh’—they put a face to the byline—and they say, ‘I read your stuff,’” he says. “‘You keep it up.’”
“Right, but they’re reading it on a phone,” Peele cuts in. “Which means they’re not paying for a subscription. And they probably just think the popup ads are annoying.”
“Well,” DeBolt says. “I do too.” An attempt at some humor. Neither of them laughs.