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Maybe Separating Newspapers From Capitalism Is A Good Idea After All

The Source printing at the Portland Press Herald printing plant in South Portland on April 3, 2014.
Photo by Tim Greenway/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

It was an otherwise hot and otherwise weird summer, much like this one, many years ago when my uncle and I packed up the furniture from my college apartment, tethered my 1994 Pontiac Sunbird to the U-Haul truck and drove the 1,400 miles from Columbia, Missouri (Go Tigers) to Augusta, Maine. The reason for this trek through the many Howard Johnsons, Shoneys, and Flying J truck stops of the Midwest to the New England corridor, was that I got an internship with a collection of newspapers in Maine. For one year I would spend my life as a reporter working at the Kennebec Journal, Waterville Morning Sentinel, and Portland Press Herald, in that order. My job would be simple: Go out and report in whatever direction they pointed and come back with enough of something to fill several column inches.

I knew nothing about these places when I accepted the offer. I learned there was, in fact, another Portland that had nothing to do with the Trail Blazers. I had never enjoyed lobster before. It was so far away from Minnesota that my grandmother actually said, "You couldn't find something further away from us?" But it was a job and I wanted to be a reporter. And doing stints in the far-flung dailies that set the record in cities and towns around this country is the closest equivalent to rumspringa we have in the business of journalism.

Then I took a permanent job at the Press Herald, and I learned what it meant to work for your local newspaper when it is not situated in a place like New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C. The other day I found out from an old friend that the Press Herald, along with a majority of the daily and weekly newspapers in Maine, are being sold to a national nonprofit. In announcing the sale, the National Trust for Local News said it doesn't plan to change much, at least for the time being. No jobs are being lost and union contracts will be honored across the papers.

Within 24 hours of this news dropping, The New York Times announced it was jettisoning its sports department to defer stick-and-ball coverage to The Athletic, while on the other side of the country the owner of the Los Angeles Times announced he was selling the San Diego Union-Tribune to MediaNews Group, which is owned by hedge-fund supervillains Alden Global Capital.

In San Diego it was already clear "difficult staffing decisions" were in the works, while at the Times management provided assurances that no jobs would be cut and former sports staffers would be dispersed to other departments. You'll have to read carefully to see which executive in this situation is reaching for the bigger lie. It's a simple truth in newspapers that there are always bigger layoffs and cutbacks somewhere beyond the horizon. There are slim options now for who you want to own your media company: a billionaire or a syndicate of would-be billionaires. One will grow tired of losses and the other never finds peace without sharpening its knives. So the rhythms we've become accustomed to in the slow gradient to doom in media is industry news tallied with outrageous numbers, either in a body count or executive compensation.

It's easy to assume when the biggest and loudest names in the media business offload or acquire assets that these are the major stakes in the fight for journalism's tomorrow. Given that state of decay, the sale of a bunch of mid-sized newspapers in Maine to a nonprofit is more than a moral victory.

I spent almost eight years as a reporter in Maine, and what that amounted to was covering the small-bore information that towns traffic in that won't be found anywhere else. For a period I worked nights, which meant listening to police scanners and calling deputies or state police spokesmen who would rather be left alone to watch Burn Notice than provide quotes on a Friday night. More often those shifts meant scanning the death notices and calling up a family to write a feature obit on a loved one, an act that felt so brazen and yet provided more comfort than I could imagine.

Later on I would become a fixture at more municipal meetings than my brain can recall. I covered town politics at a time when the local conspiracy theorist had to be gaveled off the agenda, not when they were running the show. For years my coverage area on the metro desk literally included a lake and all the towns surrounding it. If there was a property tax dispute, a school start time standoff, or a new skatepark opening, I was on it. I shadowed senate candidates as they grimaced through the county fair circuit. I covered timber sports. One time I had to investigate a rumor Tom Brady was buying a vacation home around Sebago Lake (you can guess the answer). As a 20-something reporter, those mileage reports made for good beer and burger money.

Time passed. I did a podcast, wrote my first blog (joined something called Twitter and linked my @name to the blog, what could go wrong there). I even covered a presidential inauguration. Then one day not long after the paper changed ownership, cutbacks began and I volunteered to walk out the door, not just because I was reaching a ceiling, but because I knew holding on to a reporter gig meant more to colleagues whose lives were not as easily uprooted as mine.

What I learned at the Press Herald was not just what it takes to be a journalist, but also the magic and disasters that are part of running a small or mid-sized newspaper. It is a miracle that providing the public with vital information funded through advertising and collecting checks from people within a given zip code lasted as long as it did. A paper can only capture so much news or attention in the span of 24 hours, it exists as a kind of paradox: indispensable and utterly disposable.

It does not take a dead-eyed capitalist to see there is little money to be made in trying to uphold a tenet of democracy today. This is why news nonprofits have been attempting to pair something like civic good with a tempered hunger for straight cash. In the last two decades, as newspapers cut back, there has been an acceleration in nonprofit news startups, a number that shot up during the pandemic. What the National Trust for Local News offers is something different, scooping up papers and attempting to keep them intact before they are stripped bare or shut down, and trying to supplement the traditional revenue sources with those that can be found in world of philanthropy, on the other side of 501c3 status with the IRS.

It's unclear if this is the road to salvation or the kind of aspirational daydream that comes before the oxygen is sucked out of the room. So far the National Trust for Local News has targeted Maine and newspapers in Colorado, two states offering smaller papers and fairly homogeneous populations. The organization has also been helping small public media radio stations acquire local papers, which can be a lengthy process. Still, going nonprofit offers no guarantees around conflict of interest, as donors may attempt to dictate the ways their money is used in reporting.

Of course, we already know what the alternative looks like for local newspapers. Alden Global Capital continues its march on the newspaper business like a perverse franchise crossing the country, trying to get its companies solvent by gutting assets as fast as possible. And for every newspaper that attempts to thrive through a "benevolent" billionaire, it's only a matter of time before one eventuality, an heir or a recession, changes the math on what is most important. In that context, nonprofits offer more than just the illusion of protection; we all know you never trust a predator to build a sanctuary.

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