Free Press roundup: Powerful reports on local journalism crisis | Free Press Initative

From ghost papers to the arrests of journalists, we could be watching the “long slow death of Democracy.”

Sometimes weeks go by with scant attention to America’s local journalism crisis and what’s lost as newspapers disappear.

Then there are times when the situation receives extraordinary coverage, like it has in late November.

Whether this attention moves Congress to intervene before its holiday recess in December is unclear. But perhaps people reading these stories will urge their representatives to help save the local news industry before it’s too late.

Meanwhile the government in Canada, where newspapers are in a similar bind, just reached a deal with Google requiring the search giant to pay news companies around $100 million a year for its use of their stories online, the CBC reported Wednesday.

That’s less than expected under Canada’s new Online News Act, so Google’s threats and lobbying softened the policy. But it should still increase pressure on Congress to ensure struggling news publishers in the U.S. are fairly compensated by dominant tech platforms.

Here are some of the powerful stories over the last week:

“Your Local Newspaper Might Not Have a Single Reporter,” headlines a story in The Wall Street Journal, about the rise of “ghost newsrooms.”

The Journal found dozens of papers without a single full-time reporter. It cited the latest “news desert” research that found startups backfilling for ghost newspapers in some places “but not to a degree large enough to offset the decline” of established newspapers:

“The lack of local-news coverage could make it more difficult to detect corruption, journalists and industry observers say. They cite the importance of covering hot-button topics, especially as localities confront a number of societal issues, including school curricula and policing.

‘Who’s holding people accountable?’ asked Peter Bhatia, CEO of the Houston Landing, a new nonprofit news organization covering Houston, and former editor of Gannett’s Detroit Free Press. ‘There’s just got to be somebody watching.’”

“In Alabama, another small-town power hit in ‘open season’ on free press,” headlines a story by Paul Farhi at The Washington Post, reporting out the arrests of a reporter and publisher at the weekly Atmore News.

Their crime: reporting the news, in this case that local officials were being investigated for mishandling COVID-19 relief funds, based on material a tipster mailed to the newspaper.

As Farhi writes, this is the latest in a recent string of press crackdowns. A Missouri expert on media law told him there are two driving forces:

“The financial decline of the news media has emboldened elected officials, who no longer fear challenging once-powerful local institutions. And the partisanship of social media has persuaded some officials that the only ‘legitimate’ news coverage is praiseworthy and unaggressive.”

At The New York Times, Serge Schmemann writes about the loss of local newspapers that “were the building blocks of community, democracy, politics. Their loss is a major reason behind the acute polarization and political confusion we are suffering today.”

The hundreds comments on Schmemann’s piece suggest there’s broad concern about the local journalism crisis, even among those paying for a national paper, as well as the market and policy forces making it worse.

“The consolidation of ownership, sanctioned and approved of by Congress, has certainly been a factor … The harsh truth is that in a changing society fewer and fewer people appear interested in actually reading about important local issues, and I have no idea how to change that attitude,” wrote one. “It’s local newspapers along with the investigative news staffs at some local television stations that ultimately protect society from the ills of corruption and criminality.”

Wrote another commenter: “Basically all part of the long slow death of Democracy.”

At, Kim Kleman writes about newspapers’ desperate pleas for help, in applications sent to Report for America, the nonprofit she leads that places temporary reporters in local newsrooms.

An applicant in South Carolina sought assistance to employ a reporter for a neighboring county “which nobody had covered in a decade,” she wrote.

An Arkansas applicant said there’s not a single ag reporter in the state even though agriculture is its largest industry.

One from Michigan sought help to report on the “woefully undercovered” South Detroit area where residents “struggle with air pollution, asthma, lead paint in homes and lead in water service lines, flooding, heat and many other environmental and public health threats.”

Kleman noted bright spots, including big philanthropies’ recent pledge of $500 million to support local news, but much more is needed.

“I wish more people could know what a difference a single reporter can make in a community,” she wrote. “That might inspire more people, and public and private institutions, to support local news.”

Google change hits publishers: Recent Google search updates are walloping news publishers, UK trade publication Press Gazette reported. A search optimization expert quoted in the piece said Google updates since September “have profoundly affected news and publisher websites, leading to significant shifts in these websites’ traffic and visibility.” For many that’s resulted “in a substantial decrease in revenue.” I wonder if this is related to new and proposed policies requiring Google to negotiate payment for news content. If news gets less traffic when negotiations commence, Google will pay less to publishers.

Appreciating news carriers: Kitsap Sun Editor David Nelson wrote a nice tribute to Bob Vermeers, who delivered the Sun, The Seattle Times and other papers for 16 years and died recently while on his route. “We need more people like Bob, both in his belief in what a newspaper means to a community and, quite literally, to help us get the Sun delivered,” Nelson wrote. It’s a good reminder to consider tipping carriers during the holidays, as I suggested in a column last year.

Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at