Art Cullen is the editor of the Storm Lake Times, a 3,000-circulation newspaper in Iowa. In 2017, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing disguised as investigative reporting — an exposé on corporate agriculture and river pollution. The distinction didn’t help much with the newspaper’s bottom line.
“We lost money the same year we won the Pulitzer,” said Cullen. “In fact, circulation declined in the three months surrounding the Pulitzer.” Some of Cullen’s prize money went to pay bank loans.
The only part of this saga that’s exceptional for local newspapers across the country is the Pulitzer. The rest is standard — local news is dying, and there’s a scramble afoot to save it. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation declared in February a doubling of its commitment to bolstering local journalism to the tune of $300 million over five years. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has suggested a willingness to pay publishers for their content in a possible Facebook news tab.
At a Washington Post event on Thursday, Facebook executive Anne Kornblut, a former Post journalist, spoke of the stakes at play. "Our focus and my personal focus is on helping publications figure out a business model for the future, how to help them do that. We want them to be viable. We want to get to a place where they're able to survive," she told The Post's Sarah Ellison.
These concerns are tardy. The local newspapers that still exist are struggling to bring news of consequence to their communities. A recent Duke University study of 100 randomly selected communities came to these depressing conclusions: "Eight communities contained no stories addressing critical information needs. Twelve communities contained no original news stories. Twenty communities contained no local news stories."
The problem isn’t that there aren’t journalists excited about reporting local news, or that there aren’t people who want local news. It’s that the business model has collapsed. Local newspapers once maintained a stranglehold on distribution of information and advertising to their customers — a stranglehold the internet swept away. Advertising revenue — classified ads, display ads, forgettable ads — has cratered as well, as local newspapers have had trouble competing with the reach and targeting capabilities of Google and Facebook. Those two companies command about 60 percent of the $111 billion online advertising pie.
Yet Facebook, to hear Kornblut tell it, is concerned about the trends in local news. "Facebook's core mission is community and building community. And local news is one of the most important ways you can actually build community. We've seen people come together around local news in a way that I think it would be devastating if it were somehow lost," she said.
Ask Cullen about Facebook, and he mentions all the little ads that he’s lost to the platform — $9.95 classifieds for selling a pickup truck, or promoting a garage sale. Though he’s the paper’s editor, he’ll ask anyone to place an ad.
“Need to move a couch?” he asked the Erik Wemple Blog. “People value that ... newspaper and so they supported it, they supported it. Then small-town businesses discover Facebook or Google, and there goes that 20-buck ad you were living on, and we live on $20 ads. That’s how we make a living, off the scraps that fall off the table,” said Cullen.
The issue gets more fraught with each level of Facebook sanctimoniousness. At one point in her chat, Kornblut declared that local news is "important for democracy."
It’s here where Cullen tees off. Coming up in the industry, Cullen learned that there are special constitutional protections for journalism, with special gate-keeping obligations that come as part of the deal. Facebook has proven an unreliable gatekeeper, considering that it allowed Russian agents to Russian agents to seed Facebook with “inflammatory posts” to 126 million Facebook users in an effort to divide the country in the 2016 presidential race.
“What they’re doing is taking our revenue to feed the beast of deceit and division and all those things that we were supposed to guard against as gatekeepers,” said Cullen.
Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.