By Sam Mostow, Catherine Kane and Phebe Fahmy
(Editor’s Note – The following article is the result of a collaborative effort by three college interns who worked at the News-Press this summer.)
We — the summer interns at the Falls Church News-Press — have spent the past 10 weeks reporting and writing stories that appeared on your doorstep every Thursday. It’s fulfilling work, and a way for us college students to gain experience in an increasingly rare breed of media: an independent local newspaper.
It’s impossible to work at a newspaper for a period of time, observing its intricacies and quirks, and not be aware of the perils facing newspapers in the 21st century. We are quite fortunate at the News-Press, with its independent ownership, but we acknowledge others are not so lucky.
According to Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative, over 2,500 newspapers have disappeared in the United States since 2005, accounting for more than one-quarter of printed publications. During the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 360 shut their doors. As of June 2022, there were 6,380 newspapers in the country; 1,230 were daily and 5,150 weekly.
The News-Press has published extensive reporting into the topic over the course of the summer. The series examined why newspapers are struggling and followed a bill, which passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, that hopes to address the problem. While bills, such as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in the United States and Online News Act in Canada, are passing through legislatures and becoming laws in some places, technology companies that will be most impacted, namely Google and Facebook, are refusing to cooperate, removing news features instead of negotiating to share revenue.
For us, and many other young reporters, trying to make a career out of the “dying industry” we are entering can be discouraging. With how newspapers are shrinking around the country, and many forms of journalism along with it, the future of newspapers can appear bleak.
Social media became more prominent as the 21st century progressed, leading to advertisers investing more in digital advertisements, as opposed to print. According to Tonda Rush, general counsel for the National Newspaper Association who spoke to the News-Press for an earlier story, most newspaper revenue comes from printed advertising, unless they are very large. Consequently, as the number of newspapers dwindles, so does the number of reporters.
“If you don’t have advertising and you don’t have reporters and you can’t pay your printer, then everything begins to get scaled back,” Rush said.
Local newspapers aren’t the only journalism entities facing layoffs and cuts. The Los Angeles Times cut 74 positions, making up for 13 percent of their newsroom, earlier this summer. The New York Times shuttered their sports section last month, replacing it with The Athletic, a subscription-based sports website originally funded by venture capital, which the New York Times purchased in 2022 for $550 million.
With that said, it would be irresponsible to ignore the positives. Most importantly, there are people around the country who are passionate about supporting local newspapers and are creating innovative solutions to do so. The National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit organization, purchased Masthead Maine, which operates five daily newspapers and 17 weekly publications in Maine. Although it is too soon to determine how this purchase actually impacts those publications, it could signal a shift away from a profit-first mindset and towards what the priorities of newspapers should be: Providing a community with honest, fair journalism.
Above all else, the world is filled with people dedicated to providing their communities with honest, fair journalism. All three of us work for publications at our colleges – The Flat Hat at William & Mary (Phebe), Summit Magazine at Macalester (Catherine) and The Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech (Sam) – which student volunteers operate. College newspapers and other student-run publications are labors of love; we devote our time to them out of a love for the craft and a belief that our work is beneficial to our communities.
Our investment into journalism at our schools, along with countless other students from around the country, is paying off. Last month, The Stanford Daily exposed their university president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, for manipulating research data, forcing his resignation. The Daily Northwestern reported on rampant hazing in their athletic department, spanning across multiple sports, resulting in the head football coach’s firing. Without a source of local, community-based journalism, those who needed to be held accountable may never have been.
While the field is evolving, the appetite for public and corporate accountability continues to be voracious. Investigative journalism that sheds light on the inner workings of powerful institutions is a hefty, but worthy, investment. Creating a medium for which this reporting might be presented is the challenge of the next generation of reporters. There will always be a market for storytelling. And there will always be people – ourselves included – who will be there to tell those stories.