Margaret Sullivan: Most people think local journalism is financially healthy, but reality is troubling

FILE - This April 21, 2018, file photo shows the front page of the Perspective section of The Denver Post from Sunday, April 8, in Denver. The Post's Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett, who oversaw an editorial critical of budget and staff cuts made by the newspaper's New York-based hedge fund owners, said he resigned Thursday, May 3, after management rejected a second editorial lamenting Alden Global Capital’s behavior. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Sometimes journalists just don't do a very good job of explaining their craft to the public.

For example, I realized with a shock not too long ago that many people think anonymous sources are not only unnamed in news stories but actually unknown to the reporters who use them as sources. (That's definitely not so; reporters not only know who these people are but usually have to let an editor know, too.)

I had another surprise like that last week when I read the results of a Pew Research public opinion poll.

It said the vast majority of Americans — almost 3 in 4 respondents — believe that local news outlets are in good financial shape.

And fewer than 1 in 6 Americans pays for local news.

These findings unnerved those who believe that local news is hugely important in our culture and that it needs public support to survive.

"I found the survey results to be really sad and disturbing," said David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, which advocates for news organizations. "Local journalism is very much at risk, and the public just doesn't seem to realize it."

Maybe that’s because there was a time — not so long ago — when regional newspapers were awash in cash.

In the 1990s, 30 percent profit margins were common at regional newspapers and the chains that owned them.

Then came some brutal blows. The main source of revenue — print advertising — fell off a cliff as advertisers moved to the internet or found other ways of reaching their customers. Department stores, once a mainstay of advertising, withered away in the digital economy.

And a new generation of news consumers never developed the daily newspaper habit that their parents and grandparents had.

Newspapers (and to a lesser extent local TV stations) were forced to cut costs. Often, they did so in a way that made them less valuable to their remaining customers: by eliminating journalists from their newsrooms.

Newspapers cut 45 percent of their newsroom employees between 2008 and 2017.

And some of them — including those owned by hedge funds — are down far more than that. (In Denver, for example, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News boasted 600 journalists not much more than a decade ago; the latter paper has folded, and the Post is down to well below 100 in its newsroom.)

But even in their shrunken state, many regional newspapers are producing important public-interest journalism. While this may seem encouraging, the ability to do so is fragile: The gutting of many local papers continues apace.

On Thursday, I will moderate a panel discussion featuring three journalists who exemplify this. (It’s one part of a morning-long event, devoted to saving local journalism, that will be live-streamed on The Washington Post’s website.)

Julie Brown of the Miami Herald is one of them. Her reporting revealed a secret plea deal cut by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta while he was a federal prosecutor in Miami. Brown's work, which has led to a federal investigation, revealed that a wealthy, well-connected sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein, was given federal immunity for sex crimes involving dozens of underage girls.

Andrew Chavez was part of a Dallas Morning News team whose investigation "Pain & Profit" revealed that thousands of Texans were being denied life-sustaining drugs and treatments by the private contractors hired by the state to manage their treatment. The companies raked in billions, largely from taxpayer-funded Medicaid, while desperately ill people suffered. Reforms are underway.

And Sacha Pfeiffer, now at NPR, was part of the Boston Globe Spotlight team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after revealing the Catholic Church's cover-up of widespread clergy sexual abuse. (She was played by Rachel McAdams in the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight.")

This kind of accountability reporting — along with a great deal of more mundane, but also important, local reporting — is economically threatened. When a recession, inevitably, arrives, things will get worse fast.

The trends aren't going to reverse themselves, any more than will the trends that caused the demise of Blockbuster video stores.

The internet, one hears, is not going away.

There’s no single, or easy, answer to how to preserve local journalism. The Post’s event will explore some options — such as nonprofit, digital-only outlets and support from major philanthropies.

Certainly, increased public awareness has to be a part of this, too. Part of that awareness is opening your wallet.

Local journalism — especially deep investigative journalism — is costly to produce.

As Chavern told me: "Readership is moving quickly to digital, but most of the online ad dollars go to Facebook and Google. The industry needs a better economic deal from the platforms, but it will also need more local readers to subscribe."

The money for local journalism has to come from somewhere — before it’s too late.

| Courtesy Margaret Sullivan, op-ed mug shot.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.