George Pyle: News of a death in the news family

In this Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, photo, Bertram de Souza works on a story for The Vindicator newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. The Youngstown paper announced in June it would cease publication Saturday, Aug. 31, because of financial struggles, but the paper will be printed by the Tribune Chronicle, which has bought The Vindicator name, subscriber list and website from owners of the Youngstown publication. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

I am at that awkward age where I am relatively handy with social media and use it mostly to find out who among my friends and former colleagues has died.

A posting I saw the other day really hurt. And it wasn’t even about a person.

A friend reposted a Facebook entry about how the printing press at The Garden City (Kansas) Telegram was being hauled off for scrap and the newspaper’s offices, where I began my first real job in 1978, had been sold.

The post went on to note that only five people work at The Telegram these days, an observation supported by a look at the newspaper’s Contact Us button. In my day, the news staff alone was eight people, plus pressmen, composing room staff, advertising, circulation, all that stuff.

The decline of The Telegram is a symptom of a larger collapse of journalism in Kansas and across the nation. Many newspapers have closed. Others, like the group of newspapers The Telegram once belonged to, have been subsumed by large chains that are moving to squeeze a profit out of a dying industry by killing it faster.

That’s bad. Not just for someone graduating from college now and looking for an entry-level reporting gig under the wing of the great and patient managing editor whom I once worked for.

It’s bad for democracy in all these towns, villages and bergs. Nobody is watching the mayor, the school board, the mosquito abatement district. The inevitable result will be lower voter turnout, fewer people willing to run for office, more foolish, if not downright crooked, spending.

Things are, of course, tough all over. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt outlined a lot of the depressing trends and stats in a piece launched the other day in his online newsletter. Which isn’t available in the print paper. His or mine.

The number of journalists doing the job we all need to have done is down 25 percent since 2008 and stands at maybe half of what it was at its peak. Whole communities are without any real news coverage at all.

Which is why people who live in Salt Lake City, and who care or should care about the goings on in Utah’s center of power, are incredibly fortunate to be carrying this very website in their pockets. Not for anything I do, but for the often remarkable reporting done about the Legislature, state government and power centers that include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The future of The Salt Lake Tribune is at least as secure as any other news organization’s, thanks to our transition to a nonprofit status, led by the guy who bought us away from another evil, faraway conglomerate, now supported by this state’s strong tradition of big-time philanthropy.

Not every community or state has either of these to support its journalism.

It also seems that Utah might be a good place to seek community support for an independent news operation because, here, what would be left without The Tribune would be media controlled by the aforementioned LDS Church. And even many loyal church members would be uncomfortable with that.

It is a circumstance that will be more of an incentive to donors large and small than would be the situation in most places, where what would be left in the wake of a failed Tribune-sized newspaper would be, basically, nothing. Which isn’t always as scary as something.

And all of that was before anybody could even spell coronavirus.

Now that that is all anyone talks about, there is both more danger and more help. The Tribune, for example, took advantage of a $854,800 Payroll Protection Program loan to help make up for the crash in advertising we, like most newspapers, have suffered.

There have been suggestions that government at all levels should help keep their newspapers afloat by taking out big ads full of COVID-19 information, which would not just be mercy but something truly useful.

In the long run, a full-on Bernie Sanders Medicare for All would do a lot to help local and regional journalism. It would relieve news organizations of the strain of providing their employees with health insurance as it would make it much easier for individual reporters and writers to freelance. And, like the PPP, it would be something for all businesses and nonprofits, not just for news organizations.

Direct subsidies just for reporters or journalism outfits from any government are not something that even the most tax-and-spend of us would want. We’re supposed to be independent of government.

Though, as Bob Dylan so rightly said, we’re going to have to serve somebody.

Hopefully, it will be you.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has a fond memory of the sight of Western Kansas sunsets, but not of the smell of Western Kansas feedlots.