In 1970, Congress passed legislation to create the Newspaper Preservation Act. The act exempted “joint operating agreements” (JOAs) from antitrust law, and in effect allowed two competing newspapers to share the same business operations – printing presses, buildings, advertising operations, distribution methods – as long as the news operations remained separate and competitive. It was touted as a way to preserve competition between newspapers, especially in cities with two (or more) newspapers. The legislation had been introduced after the Supreme Court found a joint operating agreement in Tucson, Arizona, to be a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The intention was (seemingly) laudable – preserve newspaper competition. What followed was very different from the stated intention. Other forces were at work. The economic foundation of traditional journalism was changing rather profoundly, and this was in the days before the internet. Joint operating agreements proliferated across the United States; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat operated under one. But St. Louis couldn’t support two newspapers, and eventually the Globe-Democrat, after being sold, shut down in 1986.
One newspaper in a JOA closing operations became almost normal. Looking back, people who’ve studied what happened have raised the question of who benefitted from the JOAs and the closing of newspapers. The answer is no surprise; it was the big newspaper chains.
Independent newspapers have become an increasingly rare enterprise. In practice, what happens is that news takes on a sameness, with the same national stories replicated across the landscape, and local news diminished. The internet didn’t cause the development, but it certainly advanced it. I can remember the shock of seeing the Shreveport, Louisiana Times sounding exactly like what you’d find in St. Louis, Detroit, or anywhere else – the same wire service stories, the same columnists, the same editorial slant. Here is St. Louis, even book reviews and movie reviews are purchased from syndicates.
The upshot is that local news, and issues of local importance, get short shrift. The term “news desert” has come to be applied to the death of weekly and community newspapers, but it has equal application to the subject of local news as well. (Few realize this, but the pages and the headlines for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, now owned by Lee Enterprises, are assembled in another city.) I suppose we should feel grateful that it’s still in the United States; it could be China. Lee, headquartered in Davenport, Iowa, publishes some 75 newspapers and touts its commitment to local news.
When journalists talk about news deserts, they are usually referring to the widespread decline of weekly newspapers in the United States. In the past 15 years, some 20 percent of weekly and community newspapers have disappeared, according to The New York Times. Thousands of communities across the country have no local newspaper. No coverage of local council meetings or school boards. No coverage of local crime. No coverage of local politicians or elections. Where newspapers have managed to survive, they resemble shadows of their former selves.
This is true even of many newspapers in cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, and elsewhere. Not that long ago, the St. Louis region had two major newspapers, a chain of suburban journals, and a host of community newspapers. Now it’s one newspaper, owned by a chain and usually dominated by national news. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat closed; the Suburban Journals were bought by the Post-Dispatch, their function officially “incorporated” but in practice eliminated.
We still have local television news, but TV news can’t do what newspapers do, and that’s to report in depth and detail. TV news focuses on what grabs attention – like crime, car wrecks, and the weather. And for TV news to cover something as mundane as a zoning change isn’t going to happen, no matter how important that change might be to a group of residents.
News deserts are of two kinds – the disappearance of newspapers in countless communities, and the disappearance of local news in what newspapers have survived. I can still find local news in the t. Louis Post-Dispatch, but more often than not I find a lot more stories from elsewhere, produced by the Associated Press and / or syndicated from the Washington Post.
This “death of the local” is more than a loss of familiar news and community- mindedness. The evidence is beginning to mount that the end of local news is contributing significantly to political polarization in the United States. We’ll look at that next week.
Related: A Conversation about Journalism.
Top photograph by Cason Asher via Unsplash. Used with permission.