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New book: Consider local news before it leaves — and takes democracy with it

There’s the famous line in from the A. Conan Doyle story about the clue that allows Sherlock Holmes to solve a particularly baffling crime: The dog that did not bark. In 21st century America, where the phrase “news desert” was invented to describe the growing number of towns and counties without a newspaper, school boards and city councils are spending like mad while crooked officials are lining their pockets — with nary a yip nor a howl to be heard.

But the problem gets even worse when one remembers that nature abhors a vacuum, and so it’s the lowest forms of noise — internet clickbait and the latest Facebook falsehood, usually courtesy of some former high school classmate or third cousin — that replace the silence. And the absence of reliable news has particularly stung in this year of coronavirus and protests over racial justice, when accurate local information is more important than ever, just as it’s harder to find.

Consider what happened a few weeks back in the small Ohio town of Bethel, where — as Buzzfeed News’ Anne Helen Peterson reported in her excellent, viral piece — a local paper that would have once reported deeply on the now depressed community was folded into a regional publication. So it was that when a few locals organized a small, peaceful march supporting Black Lives Matter, the only source of “news” became overcaffeinated Facebook posts from hysterical neighbors spreading rumors that “Antifa” or out-of-town looters were descending on Bethel, which drew an angry mob from miles around including bikers with baseball bats, who acted out accordingly.

Into this swirling void, Margaret Sullivan — currently the Washington Post’s media columnist, but drawing heavily on on her years at the Buffalo News, where she became top editor — has written one of the most timely books I’ve ever seen, about the biggest threat to democracy that no one is talking about: Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, released on Tuesday. It’s that rare book about journalism that regular folks need to read.

In creating a breezily short yet vital paperback, Sullivan traveled the land to tell the stories of places like Youngstown, now the largest U.S. city to have no hometown newspaper, but also to locales where contrarians and dreamers are fighting back, like East Lansing, Mich., where volunteer journalists have exposed civic malfeasance.

Yet the ghost in the machine is the scores of towns where no one is reporting on the stories we don’t even know are happening — and the stunning lack of public awareness that there’s even a problem. The most-eye-popping stat in Sullivan’s tome is a Pew Research poll that 71% of Americans believe their local news org is doing well financially — despite the reality of more than half of their jobs disappearing since the 2008 recession.

“That absence is one of the problems with drawing attention to this issue —it’s trying to describe a negative,” Sullivan told me Monday by phone from a vacation cottage near Lake Erie. “We don’t know what we don’t know.” In the absence of those lost scoops, Sullivan chronicles the growing body of academic research that “when the local news goes away, bad things happen — civic engagement goes down, voting goes down, but municipal costs go up.”

In Ghosting the News, Sullivan tells the story of 2018 Democratic congressional candidate Nate McMurray campaigning in upstate New York’s Orleans County, a “news desert” with no local paper, and meeting many voters who had never heard that GOP incumbent Rep. Chris Collins was under indictment for insider trading and refused to believe it. Collins won the election by less than half a percentage point. (He’d plead guilty and resign in 2019.)

So what’s the solution? Sullivan agrees with other media critics that there’s no magic bullet and that the Band-Aids that do work — philanthropy, do-gooder billionaires (not to be confused with self-interested billionaires, who also buy newspapers), small, targeted reader-and-donation-funded websites and ambitious new ideas like Report for America that send young journalists into news deserts — will be applied unevenly. Like a growing number of journalists (including this one), Sullivan has been convinced by the coronavirus crisis it may be time to consider government aid, if the risks of favoritism and bias can be removed.

“I don’t think think a model exists — it would have to be invented,” the author told me, although there may be some clues from public radio and TV. Whatever solutions can be tried, she added “there isn’t a lot of time to screw around.” That is something that those of us lucky enough to still write for a living would officially call an understatement.



History lesson

"The Proud Boys" demonstrators yell back at Pence protesters during a visit of the Vice President to the FOP in Northeast Philadelphia, Thursday, July 9, 2020
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
"The Proud Boys" demonstrators yell back at Pence protesters during a visit of the Vice President to the FOP in Northeast Philadelphia, Thursday, July 9, 2020

The bad news for Philadelphia’s still relatively new Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is that she’s off to a rocky start, with questions about everything from not enough policing on the chaotic first day of George Floyd protests to too much policing when officers tear-gassed protesters on the Vine Street Expressway. The good news is that she has a do-over to get something right that the city’s first-ever Black female top cop allegedly got wrong in her prior tenure in Portland. Oregon. In that West Coast city with so much political strife, critics said Outlaw’s cops were far too lax in dealing with right-wing extremists, including one notorious incident when police knew that the hate group Proud Boys had long guns on a parking-garage roof near left-wing protesters but failed to inform the mayor or public.

Now in Philadelphia, Outlaw has a Proud Boys problem on her hands yet again, as the polo-shirt wearing right-wingers rallied for cops and Mike Pence outside the city’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and then — despite FOP denials — were allowed inside to party with off-duty officers. The city — which moved to fire 13 cops and discipline 59 others one year ago over racist and other inappropriate Facebook posts — has an even bigger problem with white supremacy in its ranks than it’s been willing to admit. And whether Outlaw has a plan to aggressively deal with that problem — or looks the other way, as she was accused in Portland — will determine whether she can save her tenure in Philly.