Review of Ghosting the News, by Margaret Sullivan
When 37-year-old CVS cashier David Seum decided to run for Moundsville, WV town council in next week’s election, he hired a Wheeling-based public relations firm called Folkore. Its director, Nathan Daniel Blake, the son of a coal miner, worked for a local paper but left for PR because “it paid McDonald’s wages,” he told me. He manages communications for a tire company, but started Folklore with his wife in 2019 as a community-oriented agency that focuses on stories they believe it. It now has a staff of seven.
In July, Blake wrote up a press release (“Seum believes strongly that Moundsville’s best days lie in the future”), and sent it to local TV stations, and newspapers including the Moundsville Echo and the Wheeling Intelligencer.
Nobody picked it up. Welcome to politics in a news desert.
“It’s really hard to get newspapers to engage these days,” said Blake, who emphasizes how much he loved newspapers growing up. “I hate to say it, but when it comes to marketing in small towns, you’re better off spending money on Facebook than trying to get something into the paper.” Seum said he’s tried to compensate by “knocking on more doors” and “posting more on social media” than his older rivals.
As a neophyte, and not part of Moundsville’s elite dominated by older residents like former mayors Gene Saunders and Phil Remke (both featured in our film, Moundsville, now on PBS), Seum needed a newspaper, not necessarily to endorse him, but simply to hold up his candidacy to the light. Because it wasn’t, his odds of winning a seat next week are diminished, at the expense of citizens, who should know about fresh candidates challenging the old guard. And there is interest: My story on this blog about Seum has been read over 1,500 times, and was picked up by The Daily Yonder, an online magazine covering rural America.
The decline of newspapering in small towns like Moundsville, set off by the internet’s decimation of ad revenue, is a national crisis that threatens American democracy. As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes in her impeccable new book Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, the decline of local news “takes a toll on civic engagement—even on citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts, the very basis of self-governance.” (Sullivan has written a terrific book, and I especially love its title. So much of America’s current crisis, as our film shows, is about wrestling with the ghosts of a past perceived as infinitely more glorious. Moundsville is a town that, literally, markets ghosts.)
The 2016 election turned places like Moundsville into vote clusters for national reporters to mine for political intelligence. And without local newspapers to anchor them, it was easier for residents to get swept up in conversations about Donald Trump. They could find a ready audience repeating what they had heard on TV. Instead of bringing up the story reported in the local paper about how the coal company bribed the mayor, morning coffee squads across the country sunk their teeth into anything related to Trump, and online conspiracy theories with little relevance to their lives.
What we tried to do with our Moundsville movie, was to show that each small town has its own, rich story, free from the national narrative.
The more residents can live in that story, the more anchored in reality they’ll be, and the healthier society we’ll have. Voting “becomes more political polarized when local news fades,” according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Communication cited by Sullivan. She also quotes from a Pope Francis 2019 speech: Local news helps citizens “intercept the same reality” and “transmit to a wider horizon all those values that belong to the life and history of the people, and at the same time give voice to poverty, challenges, sometimes urgent issues in the territories, along the streets, meeting families, in places of work.”
At first, I kept this blog alive to publicize the film, but over time, I realized that it had become, on days when I made phone calls, read documents, checked facts, and wrote up a story, a local newspaper. My tales about the local bakery, preparing for the coronavirus pandemic, and Lady Gaga’s mom, who is from the Moundsville area, have notched over 100,000 total views. (Moundsville has around 8,000 people.) A negative review of our own film I published got over 2,500 reads. People yearn for authentic conversation about and around where they live. That hunger for local stories has enabled the rise of a network of 1,300 fake local news sites that sell targeted stories clients with political or commercial goals, quite the opposite of journalism. For $2,000, for example, on one site, you can buy “five articles and unlimited news releases,” according to an investigation by New York Times reporters Davey Alba and Jack Nicas.
Since the 19th century, local newspapers “have bonded communities,” said Victor Pickard, author of Democracy Without Journalism?, another new book on the local journalism crisis. “That cultural memory is still there, and even conservatives who say they hate the media have warm fuzzy feelings about their community paper.”
For decades until his death in 1995, Moundsville Echo editor Sam Shaw rode his bicycle around town, covering the courthouse, knocking on doors for interviews, and collecting the news from conversations on the street. The eccentric bachelor was celebrated for his integrity, and hobbies like bird-watching, choir-singing and slow walking. The Echo is now a flailing obituary sheet with minimal coverage. Current editor, Charles Walton keeps a low profile, and refused my many requests for a conversation.
In Uniontown, PA a few weeks ago, I came across a plaque in the center of town, dedicated to an editor named Walter J. “Buzz” Storey, Jr: “Community journalist for more than six decades, civic and church leader, historian, author, humorist, Pittsburgh Steelers fan, World War II, veteran, family man and someone who loved his native Uniontown with all his heart.”
This is who a newspaper editor could be in America: a hero.
To be sure, in Moundsville, local TV stations like WTOV9 and WTRF cover city council, the weather, crime, and football games, but they don’t offer deep investigations, or intimate day-to-day engagement with the lives of fellow residents. They’re not Sam Shaw.
Margaret Sullivan worked at the Buffalo News for 32 years, before moving to the New York Times. She finished in Buffalo as managing editor, and maintains her passion for the power of local journalism as a vehicle for community-building and holding the powerful to account. Buffalo is where she learned, she writes, that “a newspaper’s purpose isn’t only to keep public officials accountable, it’s also to be the village square for an entire metropolitan area, to help provide a common reality and touchstone, a sense of community and place.”
The newspaper’s place as the pillar of the village square has come crashing down. You could once become one of the world’s richest people by owning a paper. Warren Buffett bragged about the 30% profit margins at titles he controlled. Now Buffett predicts newspapers are going to “disappear.” From 2004, to 2015, over 1,800 print outlets in the U.S. closed, according to a study in the Newspaper Research Journal quoted by Sullivan.
So without a newspaper to cover long-shot candidates like David Seum, what hope is there for local news in a place like Moundsville?
Blake, the journalist-turned-PR entrepreneur, told me the solution is private investment in local storytelling, including by companies and advertisers. “They’re involved in selling goods and services to people, so they see the stories firsthand,” he said. “Tell those stories. People care far more about that than endless advertising about how great you are.” Best to include video and audio in story packages “because not that many people read anymore.” (That point helps explain why public radio is doing well.) A big challenge at the local level, of course, is guaranteeing editorial independence. At the local level, “if you have somebody who spends the money, that person is going to want some clout in how stories are portrayed,” he said.
Sullivan’s book, and a similar work by Victor Pickard, Democracy Without Journalism? highlight promising initiatives, including the prospect of public subsidies, ProPublica and Report for America’s cooperation with local news organizations, public radio, and start-ups like the East Lansing, Michigan’s East Lancing Info, a nonprofit launched by a citizen journalist and a network of friends and local residents. Wheeling has a similar venture, called Weelunk. The Daily Yonder, edited by Tim Marema, covers a wide range of issues impacting rural America. The trick is getting people to filter out all the online garbage and find their way to these sites.
In West Virginia, the Mountain State Spotlight, a collaboration between ProPublica, Report for America, and veteran West Virginia journalists like former Charleston Gazette-Mail executive editor Greg Moore, and Pulitzer Prize-winners Eric Eyre and Ken Ward, Jr., is producing A+ reporting on critical issues like health care, poverty, and voting. (I recommend Lauren Peace’s recent series on the closure of a hospital in Wheeling.)
The resurrection of local news might require public subsidies, anathema to many Americans. “But we wouldn’t let public schools die because they’re not profitable,” said Pickard. “And it should be done by professionals, we don’t let just anybody become a public school teacher.”
The hope, said Blake, is that people in his area will demand “real community” and “storytelling that changes the narrative of the Rust Belt and Appalachia.” His generation, he said, “has moved beyond the commodity mindset where all you care about is what’s cheapest.”
Sullivan writes that her “research for his book, combined with my decades in journalism, has left me with a great deal of sadness about what is happening and what is to come.” Still, she says, “I am not without hope.”
For the sake of democracy, she concludes, “we need to save as much as possible of what remains, bringing the traditional strengths fully into the digital age. And, at the same time, we must energetically support and foster the newer models that are forging the local journalism so necessary for today and tomorrow.”
John W. Miller