Media columnist for The Washington Post Margaret Sullivan is out with her new book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” The book is published by Columbia Global Reports, Columbia University.
Sullivan talked with the Medill Local News Initiative regarding the crisis facing local journalism and how it affects citizens’ sense of community.
Below is a part of an transcript, reports Poynter:
Mark Jacob: In your book, you write that the alarming decline in local newspaper coverage may allow government corruption to flourish. Can you talk about that?
Margaret Sullivan: One of the things that local newspapers have done well, generally, over many decades is to do a kind of granular government coverage that we don’t see in other kinds of news media.
That’s not to say that a local radio reporter doesn’t do a great job or that local TV can’t do very good investigative work. But local newspapers particularly have a history of showing up at every board meeting, maybe even the committee meetings, working these sources over time, and being able to get at, through this detailed beat and local coverage, how people’s tax dollars are being spent.
That’s why I start off with this sort of small story in the book about a reporter at The Buffalo News, Barbara O’Brien, and this nitty-gritty work she did, noticing something in a budget and thinking, hah, that’s funny, what is that? And it turns out to be a $100,000 unexplained payout to a retiring sheriff.
Now, that’s not going to win a Pulitzer and it might not be the worst corruption in the world. But she dug into it, got the Freedom of Information Act going so that she could get at what happened, and asked the question. I don’t know if I want to call it corruption, but it’s government doing its thing in a way that newspapers can get in the way of. And so, I was interested to see that the Orchard Park town council, by the end of this little teeny news cycle, they were sort of ‘fessing up and saying we messed up and we appreciate the news media — and I think meaning The Buffalo News largely — for pointing this out to us. To me, that’s sort of the nub of a lot of this.
Now, there also can be huge, important investigations — the work that Julie Brown did at the Miami Herald on Jeffrey Epstein. There are ones that we know about because they have really risen to a level that is national and get a lot of attention. But there also are a lot of small things that happen that we need to keep an eye on.
Jacob: You make a point in the book that while watchdog journalism is extremely important, there are lots of other kinds of journalism that may be going away that also are important because they create a sense of community.
Sullivan: I think the reason that I feel so strongly about that is that I was the features editor of The Buffalo News for eight years, a long time. And I helped to establish a new section in the paper called Life & Arts. So I supervised the art critics and the feature writers. And this was the work we did day in and day out, was to write about the fabric of the community, particularly the arts.
It frustrates me that the last thing to go with these news organizations is sports coverage. And often one of the first things to go is, for example, book coverage, arts coverage. If there’s no news organization to do that, the community is missing this core around which it functions.