It has been a rough couple of decades for the news industry on the local, regional, and national level – the U.S. has lost over 2,000 news organizations in print journalism alone. The internet is partially responsible for this decline, but it cannot be denied that unchecked corporate consolidation and shows of corporate power have also lead to the stark challenges facing the local print, radio and television news organizations so many rely on in their daily lives.
Strong, substantive, and straightforward news sources are needed at the both the national level and local level. Not only do local news outlets reflect and connect the community in which they reside, telling the stories of the local area, but robust local news drives voter turnout, holds officials and corporate leaders accountable, and in fact, studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government costs increase.
Ed Miller, Editor of The Provincetown Independent, notes local newspapers are “not just an important local business that employs people. They are essential for the proper functioning of civic life, connecting people, and shining a light on important life and death issues.”
In spite of the inherent value to their communities, thousands of local news entities have closed across the country over the past 15 years, and of those that have survived many have laid off reporters, reduced coverage, and pulled back circulation, taking with them a diverse set of voices and viewpoints necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy. Like many local business sectors that have started to see their numbers sharply decline, there is a pervasive narrative that some newspapers and radio stations just cannot compete with their more modern counterparts, however this storyline leaves out some key points involving corporate power and concentration.
There was a time when family-run local newspapers were a lucrative business due to healthy advertising sales and a reliable base of subscriptions. This attracted investment firms like Dow Jones in the 1970s and 1980s and corporate newspaper chains like News Corp in the 1990s and 2000s to start adding them to their portfolios. These entities, although not embedded in the newspaper’s community, for the most part, allowed the newspapers to run as they had when under local control.
The birth of the internet and the onslaught of digital media was a distinct turning point for the local news industry. Not only did free sites like Craigslist syphon off their classified ad sales, but more recently search engines like Google and social media sites like Facebook have caused a significant drop in advertising revenue. These platforms distribute and use the content news entities spend a lotof money to create (providing extensively researched, fact-checked and well-written news is very expensive) to add value to their product and then run their own digital ads right beside it. It’s quite the predicament: the publishers have no choice but to have an extensive presence on the very tech platforms that are threatening their existence, as many consumers have come to rely on them to get their news content.
This unchecked dominance of Facebook and Google in digital advertising, which some in Congress have recently called monopolistic in nature, poses a particular challenge for local newspapers. While the two companies account for 58% of digital advertising revenue nationally, they account for 77% in local markets.
The drop in revenues for newspapers that were already owned by newspaper chains, made them vulnerable for purchase by private equity firms. Traditionally, private equity firms use investors’ money to purchase a failing business to restructure it, cut costs and make it profitable once more, giving shareholders a return on their investment. The trend in newspapers was no different. Essentially, firms like Gatehouse acquire a newspaper property and strip it to the bone by cutting staff, consolidating services with their other holdings, selling their buildings, getting rid of pension plans where possible, and extracting as much cash from remaining loyal subscribers and local business advertisers as possible. Sometimes, the plan includes borrowing against the newspaper, charging for their own management fees, and then sticking the debt on the newspaper’s balance sheet. Then they declare bankruptcy, reorganize, and start over again, without any form of oversight.
Cape Cod has always been home to a thriving local news scene with many towns having more than one local news source. However, it has not been immune to the trends that many counterparts have faced. The only regional daily paper the Cape Cod Times and weeklies like the Provincetown Banner, The Barnstable Patriot and The Cape Codder are now owned by Gatehouse, whose merger with Gannett in late 2019 made it the largest newspaper chain in the country retaining 1 out of every 6 newspapers in their catalog. Although these local newsrooms have kept some of their talented and dedicated staff, they have not been immune to the significant cost cutting and consolidation measures noted above.
For those local news organizations on the Cape that have maintained local ownership, their outlook on the future is one of positivity. Bill Hough publisher of The Enterprise Newspapers in Falmouth, Mashpee, Bourne, and Sandwich, which has been publishing news on Cape Cod since 1885, said their “connection to the community” is of the utmost importance to their business model and so they have never cut their newsroom staff or dropped their circulation. He credits their ability to diversify revenue streams by performing a wide variety of marketing services for local businesses along with their dedicated subscribers as two of the reasons they have been able to navigate the changes in the industry.
Cape Cod Chronicle Executive Editor Alan Pollock seconded what Hough said, stating their staff has remain unchanged and their loyal subscribers and local businesses continue to invest in their newspaper, which covers Chatham, Harwich, and Orleans, and has been in operation since 1965. “The demand for what we offer remains strong,” Pollock expressed, “there’s a necessity for what we do in every community.”
Radio has also taken its share of hits in the past few decades, but in spite of the tremendous consolidation in radio and print news, Cape Cod Broadcasting Media (founded in the 1970s) owner Greg Bone has continued to invest in his news team because there is “great value in having news produced for Cape Cod on Cape Cod and not in Providence.” His stations, including WQRC 99.9 FM, WOCN 104.7 FM, WKPE 103.9 FM and WFCC 107.5 FM, all air local news from providing accurate regional weather to giving timely updates on the COVID-19 pandemic. He went on to say, “Cape Cod is a vibrant and giving community and we aim to reflect that…we are not answering to shareholders, we are here for different reasons.”
Even the newest member of the local news bunch, The Provincetown Independent, which was started in 2019 and covers Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham, is holding its own in spite of the circumstances facing many small businesses today. Miller said, “small town newspapers are part of a powerful tradition understood by our local community,” and “people are becoming aware of the dangers of not having independent, locally owned newspapers.”
But as Pollock noted, the continued survival of locally owned news outlets will depend on engaging with the next generation who will also need to find value and meaning in their product. Although Cape Cod might offer a case study otherwise, generally speaking, news consumers have become less inclined to follow local sources of news, instead being drawn to national news coverage. What many people might not realize is state and local governments have a huge influence on citizens’ daily lives. They spend people’s tax dollars. They decide how schools operate, manage most of the roads we drive on, police and fire expenditures. And these are topics that local news outlets cover. Unless they no longer have the resources to do so.
Over 65 million Americans live in counties with only one local newspaper—or none at all. Yet the desperate need for localized sources of news has never been more evident than this past year as the data and information about the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccine rollout was and still is constantly changing and evolving. What good is knowing the case counts in California to someone on Cape Cod trying to evaluate their personal risk? Or even knowing where to find the vaccine in Boston? Not only do Cape Codders need a source for timely local news, but they also need reporters who understand and care about this community on a deeper and more personal level.
Continued support and engagement from the residents and businesses of the entire Cape Cod region are important to keeping these locally owned news organizations intact, however government also has an important role to play. Antitrust authorities can and should investigate corporate chain ownership and the damage it has done to the industry, and private equity firms should be required to provide more transparency and their ability to file bankruptcy should be limited. Additionally, federal legislators should endorse efforts like the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which encourages the investment in local media through federal tax credits for consumers, businesses and news organizations themselves; and state legislators should encourage efforts to study journalism in underserved communities.
Not only does a healthy democracy require a free press, but a healthy community needs dedicated, well-trained, and passionate journalists, along with strong, locally operated news organizations to keep its members well informed and connected.
A special thank you to Bill Hough from the Enterprise Newspapers, Alan Pollock from the Cape Cod Chronicle, Ed Miller of the Provincetown Independent and Greg Bone from Cape Cod Broadcasting for the time and insight they provided for this article. We have no doubt the Cape’s local news organizations will always serve this community well with them at the helm.
This article is part of a year-long investigative series that will explore how corporate concentration has affected various industries across the country and what impact that can and does have on Cape Cod’s local economy.
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