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Dec. 14, 2020, 2:53 p.m.
Business Models

The real reason local newspapers are dying

“I left daily newspaper journalism in 2005. But it’s only gotten worse, because now there is the internet to scapegoat for all of the incompetence and thievery.”

For a decade, Allison Hantschel worked at small newspapers in the Midwest. She left that career for the world of nonprofits, which are still journalism-adjacent.

I first met Allison online, when I saw her responding to a tweet from a magazine editor lamenting the loss of local newspapers and chiding Americans for not investing in supporting their local journalism.

And there is a lot to be said for that line of thought. There are a lot of local journalists who do incredible work only to have it ignored or cannibalized by national outlets. There is a problem with large news conglomerates. But there is another problem, too. There is a problem of power and audience. There is a problem where business meets storytelling and where whiteness meets our conception of audience. And this is the story that isn’t being told.

On these topics, Allison had some things to say.

In her analysis, she talked about how large outlets pearl-grab local news but cannibalize it. She talked about how local newspaper websites are bad and so is the content and we aren’t talking about that. Because she is a Midwestern lady willing to shout the truth, I interviewed her about her history at small newspapers and what she sees as the real problems in local journalism. In sum, she argues, newspapers were damaging themselves long before the internet and private equity came along.

Lyz Lenz: Thank you for talking to me! Tell me about your background.

Allison Hantschel: My background is in journalism. I started out as a community news reporter and worked for a while for Conrad Black at Hollinger International. If you’re familiar with the collapse of local news, you know about his fraud. We’re talking about somebody who literally stole money from his business to fund his lavish lifestyle, while telling his reporters, “We don’t have money.”

And for the longest time I actually believed that. But then you start asking, well, okay, if we’re broke, then why is Conrad’s wife expensing summer drinks, $21,000 worth, to the company?

And somehow we don’t have any money to pay to a government agency for release of documents that we need to report on our communities. This was back in the late ’90s. So this is not the internet. This is not, “Oh, the bloggers have stolen all of our cash.”

This is back when, what we’re now told, was the good times.

I moved on to another paper, which was also a mess. For different reasons. The community wanted their paper and loved their paper and cared about their paper, but were absolutely unable to get it. Like physically could not get the newspaper. For the longest time, people would call the newsroom because they couldn’t get through on the circulation line, or they couldn’t get help, and say, “Hey, I didn’t get my paper.”

There’s a whole department that’s supposed to be dealing with this. What is happening right now? And so it was just all this nonsense. I left daily newspaper journalism in 2005. But it’s only gotten worse, because now there is the internet to scapegoat for all of the incompetence and thievery.

Lenz: Right? I remember encouraging people to subscribe to my local paper and getting messages and texts saying it was impossible because the sign-up page was wonky or wouldn’t work. Just the functionality wasn’t there.

Hantschel: One story that illustrates why the problems with the business of local journalism predates the internet: So, I worked at a newspaper that covered the South Side of the city of Chicago and the south and southwest suburbs. And as the white flight spread farther out, and as the suburbs grew, we began to expand into new territory. We hire like five reporters, including a business reporter who moved his entire family from Washington State.

Then, several months later, the company purchases an already existing small paper in the same community. And we compete against ourselves for three years. We should have just bought them in the first place and just brought them into the fold. But no, we’re going to work against ourselves. So there was nothing about the internet that made people do that.

Lenz: Well, just even the old dodgy systems that are used are so broken. We are told we are “digital forward” but are forced to use very buggy CMSs, when just using WordPress would be cheaper.

Hantschel: I used to think the problem with local journalism was that the people running them didn’t understand the internet. And I think genuinely the problem is they don’t understand newspapers. Because they don’t understand the job of journalism, which is to write stories about the community.

Lenz: They don’t want to make people mad. And you’re like, that’s what people want. They want you to do your job. And guess what, writing good stories is good for business! It gets traffic. Justifies subscriptions.

Hantschel: For everyone that’s mad at you and calls up and complains, there’s 20 people that will never call you and say thank you, but they are grateful, who are saying, thank you for getting the story out.

Lenz: It reminds me of my favorite newspaper truism: “Headlines don’t sell papes, newsies sell papes!

Hantschel: That was a joke a few months ago. Someone tweeted, “Well maybe if they employed tough, dirty children to tell me to read all about it.”

And I was like, you’re kidding, but you’re not really kidding because what newspapers have done over the years is disinvest in circulation, in marketing and in distribution. And if people don’t know about your paper and people can’t get your paper, those problems cross business models, that is not an issue of needing to find a way to build in micropayments.

The issue is just not thinking about your customers first. I don’t care if they’re digital first or print first, if you’re not reader first, what are you doing? If you’re not thinking to yourself, “Hey, how is this going to serve the audience that I am responsible for?” What is the point? And sure, that can include your local business leaders or whatever. But if they’re literally poisoning people and lying about it, then probably you should side with the people that are being hurt. You know what I mean? Like, why is that revolutionary? Why is that such a hard story to write?

Lenz: When I worked at the paper, I once got a gentle reminder about how “conservative” the newspaper audience was. But that seemed so condescending, because conservatives like good stories, too, and it’s not about politics, it is about power. Also, we are in a blue county in Iowa. So, even if it is traditionally “conservative,” you are telling our most vocal liberal columnist to appeal to an audience that is not really her audience.

When editors and publishers are nervous because the mayor is mad again, or that a banker is claiming cancel culture because you won’t publish his racist op-ed, who are you really serving? Who is your audience, really? Also, if the only time you’re covering the Black community is when there’s crime, who is your audience, really?

Hantschel: If you play to the audience you imagine you have and you are an all-white newsroom, then you only serve your white audiences. And you end up with the customer base you have now, people who believe that if the news is not screaming that we are being lied to by a liberal conspiracy, then they don’t believe in it.

Also, there is a mindset that maybe our customers will love us if we give them nothing but cotton candy. And that’s not right.

Lenz: Reporting doesn’t happen in a moral vacuum. When you cater to conspiracies or cater to half-truths and cater to racist ideas because you refuse to hire people of color and can’t see beyond your whiteness, then local newspapers bear responsibility for creating this ecosystem. This is not Fox News’s entire fault.

Hantschel: There’s a lot of this that is not necessarily political. I don’t think this is a political conspiracy. I believe these problems are rooted in laziness and stupidity. Never ascribe to malice what stupidity will adequately explain.

Power is used to being in power and doesn’t like to be questioned. So there is no thinking critically, just reactions.

The first editorial page editor I worked with was a woman named Chris Bailey. She worked for the Elgin Courier News, which still exists, sort of. Chris retired many years ago, but Chris was a hero. Elgin was thought to be a suburb, but it really was its own sort of small town — decaying manufacturing base, brand-new casino comes in and et cetera, et cetera.

And there was a lot of violence. And we covered the violence as violent. So when there’s a triple homicide in the friggin’ middle of the daytime, on a public street where the bodies are just laying there…Yes, we’re going to publish that on the front page.

And the city fathers of course flipped out. They told us we were giving the town a bad name. And Chris wrote an editorial that said, you guys don’t have an image problem. You have a corpse problem. Make the corpses go away, and your image problem will go away.

I think about that. And I’m like, okay, put Chris in charge of The Washington Post editorial board. And we would not have had the last four years.

Lenz: This reminds me of Cedar Rapids’ failed festival. It was a Fyre Festival. We didn’t even pay John Waters, and he hates us now. Whoever becomes the new mayor needs to institute a citywide day of apology towards John Waters. And literally, whenever you write about it, it inspires a whiny email from the mayor saying it wasn’t his fault. And everyone gets defensive. Once a business owner accused me of making the town look bad because I talk about this failed festival a lot. And of course, this is always handled by management trying to soothe bad feelings rather than saying, “Maybe if you don’t like that you planned a failed festival and stole people’s money, apologize.”

Hantschel: Newspaper editors and publishers hire all these people because of their incredibly advanced bullshit detectors and their question-asking skills. And then you somehow are confused and upset when they apply those to their own newsroom. I and my colleagues would sit in meetings and be like, well, why is the company doing this? And they’re like, well, you shouldn’t be asking questions. And that’s literally the only good thing about us. That’s the only thing we know how to do is ask annoying questions of people standing in front of podiums lying. That’s our entire lives.

Lenz: Literally, a plan was floated that the columnists wouldn’t ask questions during the editorial board review process to make it easier for the Republicans (who refused to participate). I refused. I was hired because I’m good at my job. Why silence any of us?

Hantschel: I think that newspaper editors and publishers forget that they have the power. That they don’t just have to report what people in power tell us. You are an editor who can set an agenda. You have a massive barrel of ink and a whole load of paper. Go find some tough, dirty children to sell these papes. You can get this information out there. And the fact that you don’t, it’s because you don’t want to. So quit pretending to be something that you’re not. Quit pretending to be journalism.

Lenz: It’s not even a business decision. Because stories that hit hard, that get traffic — that sells papers.

It’s not bad business to hold people accountable. It just makes you uncomfortable at the country club. And sure, maybe the governor won’t come to your conferences, but so what? Wear that like a badge of honor.

Hantschel: When people used to call and complain, we would put them on speakerphone. So the whole office got to hear them whine.

You should revel in criticism of terrible people — criminals and scum. If Mitch McConnell hated me by name, I would tattoo that on my forehead. I would die bragging about it. You know what I mean? Because it would mean I did my job.

I will say, however, we have gotten to the point where everybody’s thinking, “Everyone hates me. That means I’m doing something right.” Which isn’t true. That one makes me nuts because that is not it. Everyone hates you because you’re a dick, not because your ideas are so good.

Lenz: What you are hitting on now is not just a small newspaper problem. It extends to bigger media companies, too. But in smaller communities, it feels more intense. Or maybe it’s like that everywhere, and we just see it more intensely in smaller spaces?

Hantschel: It’s very insular. And everyone worries about influence and secrets in political journalism, where they really should be worried about it is in local high school sports coverage. Honest to Christ, I had a sports editor scream at me one day for covering a story about a horrifically racist local sports league.

So, I had this guy come over and scream at me because I was making it difficult for him to get to games. And I was just like, you know what? I don’t actually care all that much about your problem. But that’s the thing. These are his buds, right? These are his bros, and they go and tell him stuff. But they obviously didn’t tell him very much if he didn’t break the story first. What’s the value of these friendships?

Lenz: That is something that I’ve been really frustrated about for so long in the pandemic is that local sports coverage by and large does not talk about the pandemic. It does not talk about who’s wearing masks and social distancing. It does not talk about which high school kids have Covid.

And the decision not to do this actually has public health consequences. People get sick and die because you wrote stories that made it sound like basketball is normal and everything is fine. Writing doesn’t happen in a moral vacuum.

This is also the story of racism at the Iowa football program. You have white men cover the sport for years, and then everyone is all shocked when players come out and talk about racism. Because no one saw it. Well, of course they didn’t see it. You are all white. And if you did see it, you chose not to write about it, because that wasn’t your “area.”

Hantschel: This has bugged me from the beginning, because we act like all of these vague standards that the Poynter Institute has are ironclad rules.

Like if we violate them and use the wrong word, then someone’s going to take our journalism badge away. What is to prevent the sports writers from all of a sudden doing a story about COVID and high school sports and how it’s affecting them financially? That’s an incredibly compelling sports story. Why is that not your thing? And that’s what makes me absolutely bananas. This is not a rule. This is just something you’ve decided. And you could decide the other way. So tell me why you’ve decided that. And if you can’t back it up, don’t get mad at me for pointing it out.

Lenz: I grew up one of eight kids. I’m used to conflict. So I am surprised at the number of people who are in journalism who are afraid of making people mad. Go into PR then. This is the job. And like you said, the “friendships” aren’t resulting in good stories. So maybe find new friends. And stop pretending that being a coward helps you be a journalist. Okay, that was my rant. Let’s talk about what you said about the newspaper’s hiring “dollar-store Buckleys.”

Hantschel: In Chicago we have John Kass. He used to not be so terrible. And then all of a sudden decided that, at some point, that he was just going to go straight down the Newsmax rabbit hole. And whatever, but even the writing is not good. So maybe we disagree, but you are not backing anything up with facts. You’re not reporting anything. You’re not calling anybody. You’re not talking to anybody. You’re not providing anything original. You’re just regurgitating something that you read in an email forward from your great uncle or whatever. And in Kass’s case, he is the great uncle.

So, they aren’t even good at this.

Lenz: I always thought that at least the bad writing was good for the bottom line. Except, now that I’ve seen it first-hand, it’s not. No one subscribes to a local paper so they can read syndicated John Kass. No one. It’s not a business decision; it’s a laziness decision.

Hantschel: The places that have managed to make things work for them are the places who provide something that people can’t get elsewhere.

You have to provide something of value to your customers.

I don’t understand how continuing to run the same 15 international stories from the wire that people already read two days ago is a good business decision. If that’s all you’re doing and you’re simultaneously crabbing at me that you deserve to survive and I owe you my time, well, sorry, I don’t owe you anything.

That’s the other part of this that we haven’t really talked about, which is that newspaper companies have spent the last 20 years screaming at their customers that they suck.

Lenz: This is what made me want to talk to you. I saw your tweets because you were responding to an editor of a magazine. Who was grabbing her pearls and declaring that we must save small newspapers, like she was a rich lady begging everyone to save the orphans. But what if the orphans actually killed their parents? This is a terrible metaphor.

Hantschel: I say keep it. Because newspapers have told their customers over and over that they deserve their money just because they exist, but have done nothing to earn that money. And now they want sympathy subscriptions, which is not how subscriptions work. Are they negging? Like, is this a pick-up artist strategy? Is that what we’re doing?

Lenz: For so long, I made “subscribe to your local newspaper” a part of my efforts. And it’s why I took the job that I was fired from. But every once in a while, I hear from people who say, “I would love to subscribe to my local newspaper, but it’s run by literal, like, white supremacist apologists.” And you know what, good point!

Hantschel: I used to subscribe to both the Tribune and the Sun-Times when I was reporting, because I basically felt like I had to. And nine times out of 10, neither one of those papers would be at my doorstep before 9:00 am, and we’re a commuter town. And this is not sustainable.

So you know, don’t call me up and tell me I don’t value journalism. In my nonexistent spare time, I raise money for journalism. But these newspapers literally didn’t do their jobs. If I go to a bagel shop and it poisons me, I will not go there again. And that bagel shop can put up all the signs that it wants about how you owe me your business because I’m local, but you gave me salmonella.

Lenz: We are hand-wringing, but sometimes news outlets absolutely do need to be burned to the ground so we can start over. And I know there is a lot of concern about hyper-partisan news outlets cropping up, but there is also this nonprofit news model cropping up, too.

Hantschel: And it’s the entitlement. You don’t get to survive just because it’s the Chicago Tribune.

Lenz: And how is this money you are begging for being spent? Not on more diverse hires. It’s on pointless rebranding campaigns? You can’t pay interns, you can’t hire one Black person, but you can rebrand?

Hantschel: Rebranding will continue until morale improves.

Lenz: That’s the problem. You can’t argue that you have to publish a dollar-store Buckley because we’re a business and that’s what our audience wants. When the traffic numbers show that no, people don’t want that. So you aren’t giving your audience what they want, but in the meantime are pounding on people’s doors, begging them for money.

Hantschel: At least Fox News makes a load of cash.

This is the thing. Newspapers don’t know how to pivot, and this is a real problem. Their corporate ownership prevents them from doing so.

You can pretend you are independent, but there is still a CEO. There are still people who control the money. So talk all you want about changes and bold new directions, but if someone doesn’t fund those directions, they go nowhere. And some ideas are empowered, but the real question is who are the voices that they are empowering? What are they empowered to do?

Lyz Lenz is a former columnist for The Cedar Rapids Gazette and the author of Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women and God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America. She lives in Iowa and her writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, the Washington Post and the New York Times. You can subscribe to her newsletter “Men Yell at Me” — where this interview originally ran — here.

Depiction of a man reading a newspaper while listening to a Fireside Chat on the radio from the FDR Presidential Library & Museum, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 14, 2020, 2:53 p.m.
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