Don’t Stop the Presses! When Local News Struggles, Democracy Withers

Four days earlier, columnist Otis R. Taylor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “Oakland appears to be breaking down,” expressing frustration at the city’s growing tent communities, house fires, crumbling roads, and police department scandals. Days before the city’s deadline to approve its budget, protesters disrupted the city council meeting, forcing a delay. Some chained themselves to the dais. At the last council meeting before the summer recess, I witnessed members of a local union march through City Hall chanting, “What do we want? A people’s budget!”

Whatever fate befalls the East Bay Times is one that will play out in major cities and small towns across the country. Digital First owns the Orange County Register, in Santa Ana, California; the Daily Record, in Cañon City, Colorado; the Press & Guide, in Dearborn, Michigan; The Record, in Troy, New York; the Sentinel & Enterprise, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts; The Trentonian, in Trenton, New Jersey; The Morning Journal, in Lorain, Ohio; The Reporter, in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Dozens more.

It comes back to advertising—or its lack. These papers would have once been propped up by local businesses, a symbiosis that sustained commerce and journalism alike. Businesses such as Hank Coca’s Downtown Furniture. The quickening death of America’s newspapers, and the communities around them, may be one of the more profound stories of our time—and it’s one the papers themselves are neither inclined nor equipped to cover. “The East Bay Times is a pillar of local journalism for much of the Bay Area,” says Carl Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents employees at the Times, among other papers. “And if the pillar is not there, it sounds like something’s going to collapse, doesn’t it?”

Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt once told The New York Times’ Miguel Helft that he thought Google had a “moral imperative” to reimburse publishers beset by falling revenue. No such reimbursements have been made.

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Erin Brethauer for WIRED

Nobody has bothered to change the sign. On a drab office building in downtown Oakland, “Oakland Tribune,” in Old English font, looks out on Broadway. It’s a morning in May—more than a year since the paper became the East Bay Times.

Inside someone has tied balloons (Congratulations!), now dimpled, to a champagne bottle, now empty. The newsroom is nearly empty as well. Peele and DeBolt sit in a long, sunlit conference room. DeBolt says he’s noticed a decline in the Times’ ability to cover local government since he started working for BANG five years ago. Peele says ongoing coverage of the Ghost Ship fire—delving into what the fire department knew and when, for instance—has taken up all his time. “This other shit, you know, I can’t do it,” he says. “A politician who I pretty much had figured out was a crook has skated for the last five months because there was nobody next to me to do this.” And yet, in 2017, that nagging question persists: Does anyone care? DeBolt insists readers still find value in the local news the paper provides. “I meet people and they go, ‘Oh’—they put a face to the byline—and they say, ‘I read your stuff,’” he says. “‘You keep it up.’”

“Right, but they’re reading it on a phone,” Peele cuts in. “Which means they’re not paying for a subscription. And they probably just think the popup ads are annoying.”

“Well,” DeBolt says. “I do too.” An attempt at some humor. Neither of them laughs.

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