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The Rise of the Ghost Newspaper
As hundreds of small weeklies and dozens of dailies vanished from the U.S. news landscape in recent years, thousands of other dailies and weeklies became shells, or “ghosts,” of their former selves. Many of these papers are still published – sometimes under the same name as in the past – but the quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content are significantly diminished. Routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided.
Research by Duke University attempted to quantify the diminishment of local news by analyzing over 16,000 news stories provided to 100 randomly selected communities in one week. The study found that fewer than half of news stories provided to a typical community were produced by the local media outlet, and only 17 percent were about the community or events that took place there. The local news ecosystem seemed to be least robust in communities that had significant portions of Hispanic/Latino populations or in neighborhoods and suburbs that were either in, or adjacent to, large metro markets. The study also found that even when a local newspaper was located in a county seat, there was no increase in “journalistic production . . . [which] would seem to reinforce contemporary concerns about the decline in local government reporting.”1
There are two paths to becoming a ghost newspaper:
In one scenario, a weekly or small daily, often in a metro or suburban area, is purchased by a larger daily and slowly fades away as its news-gathering operations are merged with the larger paper’s. In its final stages of life, the once stand-alone weekly transitions to a free-distribution shopper or an upbeat lifestyle and entertainment publication. There is no breaking news or public service journalism. Between 2004 and 2018, almost 600 once-stand-alone newspapers – or one-third of the 1,800 papers that the country lost — became advertising supplements, free-distribution shoppers or lifestyle specialty publications.
In the second scenario, newspapers become “ghosts” when their newsroom staffing is so dramatically pared back that the remaining journalists cannot adequately cover their communities. In general, this has occurred among the nation’s dailies and larger weeklies. Although the exact number is hard to pin down, we estimate, based on news accounts and industry data, at least 1,000 of the 7,200 newspapers still published in this country – and perhaps as many as 1,500 – have lost significantly more than half of their newsroom staffs since 2004. As a result, they have become ghosts, with drastically curtailed reach and journalistic missions.
Unlike the 600 weeklies that evolved into advertising supplements and were removed from the UNC database, the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 large dailies with drastically reduced editorial missions are counted in the overall total of 7,100 surviving newspapers. However, the sheer size of this contingent – and the fact that most are dailies – speaks to the magnitude of the diminishment of local news at the local, state and regional levels in recent years.
A third of the 1,800 papers – 600 – that were lost over the past decade slowly faded away. Most were suburban weeklies. Like the frog in slowly boiling water, few people in the community noticed anything different at first. There was no abrupt closure that grabbed headlines. Often there was merely an announcement that the paper had been purchased by the owner of a nearby, larger daily.
Initially, the paper continued to be published under the same name, and the reporters who worked for the paper continued to aggressively cover local government. However, as circulation declined, the once stand-alone paper became a zoned edition of the larger paper. Over time, the building where the paper had been published for decades – often a landmark in the community – was sold and staffing dramatically reduced. Increasingly, news coverage focused on noncontroversial topics – lifestyle features on people and events in the community. In the final stage, management at the larger daily paper announced that the zoned edition would become a weekly specialty publication, advertising supplement in the main paper or a TMC (total market coverage) product or shopper, distributed free to all residents in the community.
UNC used a three-step process to identify these ghost newspapers. It included analysis of the editorial content of the newspapers, online research – especially focusing on official statements by corporate owners – as well as a comparison of our database of more than 9,000 newspapers with the current databases maintained by the country’s 50 state press associations. The Casper Journal in Casper, Wyoming, (population 60,000) and the Smithfield Herald in Smithfield, North Carolina, (population 16,000) are representative of 600 metro and suburban weeklies that have transitioned from stand-alone, independent newspapers to ghost newspapers in recent years.
The Casper Journal was started in 1976 in Wyoming’s second-largest city out of a perceived need to fill a gap in local news coverage left by the Casper Star-Tribune, which was then owned by Howard Publications and circulated throughout the state. "We started our paper based on a niche we felt was left open by the Casper Star-Tribune," then Casper Journal publisher Dale Bohren said in an interview. Over the years, the weekly acquired a reputation for aggressive coverage of local issues, as well as elected officials. In 2003, the Journal was awarded second place for editorial excellence in the small-weeklies division by the state press association. The following year, it was purchased by the Casper Star-Tribune, now owned by Lee Enterprises. At first, all 13 members of the staff — including the publisher – remained on board to serve the publication’s 30,000 readers. The publisher of the Star-Tribune stressed that the acquisition was not intended to end local competition, saying, “Whether you own one product or two in a marketplace, that does not diminish your responsibility to readers and advertisers.” But over the past 14 years, the news operations of the Journal have been completely merged with the Star-Tribune. In 2017, the Journal became a TMC advertising publication, distributed free to residents in the area. It features no unique or original local articles, according to the Wyoming Press Association. A note to readers promised that “this change means the Journal can now offer expanded news and sports coverage to keep you informed about what's happening in town and across Wyoming.” However, a recent posting on the website of Casper Radio Station 95.5 expressed a different sentiment. It was titled, “Tired of the Casper Journal Littering Your Lawn? Here’s How to Stop Delivery.”2
The Smithfield Herald began publishing in 1882, the same year that the railroad arrived in Johnston County in eastern North Carolina. Throughout the 1900s, the family-owned paper located in the community of Smithfield, 30 miles from the state capital of Raleigh, received numerous journalism awards for its column writing and editorials, as well as its reporting on local news and high school sports. In 1980, the Raleigh News & Observer, which was then independently owned and operated by the Daniels family, purchased the Herald. Over the next three decades, The News & Observer, which was sold to McClatchy in 1995, acquired nine other community weeklies, including the Cary News, the Clayton News-Star and the storied 100-year-old Chapel Hill Newspaper, whose editor was immortalized in the nationally syndicated cartoon “Shoe.” Over time, the news staffs at each of the weeklies were reduced until there was only one reporter covering each of the 10 communities, and the buildings where the papers were once published were sold. In 2017, citing financial reasons, McClatchy converted all 10 of these newspapers into advertising publications, titled “Triangle Today,” distributed free to nonsubscribers and composed of “repurposed” entertainment, lifestyle and sports news, as well as syndicated columns. All 10 of these suburban Raleigh communities now rely on The News & Observer for primary coverage of local news. This means that routine city and county governmental meetings in these communities are no longer covered by any news outlet.3
The path of the almost 600 papers that followed this trajectory in becoming a ghost newspaper raises concerns about the future of the country’s remaining 3,200 metro and suburban weeklies that are owned by larger metro and regional dailies. This includes, for example, the 23 Houston weeklies and one daily purchased by Hearst in 2016 from 10/13 Investments and merged into the Houston Chronicle as zoned editions.4 As the economics of the metro and regional dailies continue to deteriorate, will many more suburban weeklies transition from zoned editions with local news to advertising publications without any local news?
The Collapse of the Large Dailies
While weeklies in the country’s suburbs and cities often fade into oblivion without anyone outside the community noticing, the layoffs at the large dailies often attract headlines in news outlets across the country. Many of the reporters laid off have been longtime business and investigative reporters who know how to write articles that attract attention and headlines.
This past year, after multiple rounds of cutbacks have left newsrooms that once employed hundreds with only a few dozen reporters and editors, reporters have been especially successful in calling attention to the diminished state of journalism at once-iconic dailies.
Recent internet postings by journalists have pointed out that over the past decade and a half, the U.S. lost more newspaper jobs than coal mining jobs – both in terms of numbers and percentages.5 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2004 employment in coal mining has declined 26 percent (from 70,558 to 51,866), while newspaper staffing has dropped 45 percent (from 71,640 to 39,210).6 Other surveys place the number of newspaper journalists even lower – 25,000 in 2017, down from 52,000 in 2008.7
Many newspapers, especially those owned by large corporations and investment entities, such as hedge funds and private equity firms, have shed many more journalists. Since UNC did not have direct access to staffing levels at individual papers, we relied on information gleaned from news accounts, publicly available industry data and online research to estimate the number of newspapers still published in 2018 that have lost more than half their newsroom staffs since 2004. An estimated 1,000 newspapers – and as many as 1,500 – of the 7,200 newspapers still published in 2018 have drastically curtailed their distribution and their journalistic missions.
Ghost newspapers include both big-city metro papers, such as The Denver Post, which grabbed headlines with its journalists’ revolt over the cutbacks in spring 2018, as well as state and regional dailies, such as The Wichita Eagle, that have dramatically cut their staffs and pulled back their news coverage of outlying areas in the region.
Many of the large metro dailies are owned by large investment groups — hedge and private equity funds. These investment entities — such as New Media/GateHouse, Digital First and tronc/Tribune – have under their control some of the largest chains in the country. They employ the same formula for managing the hundreds of newspapers they purchased over the past decade at rock-bottom prices as they do for other properties they own and operate, such as financial institutions and real estate firms. That formula involves aggressive cost cutting, often paired with extensive financial restructuring, including bankruptcy. This invariably leads to short-staffed newsrooms that, of necessity, focus on quick-hit news stories instead of the more labor-intensive investigative and analytical pieces that are vitally important in providing a public service to the communities they cover.
At its peak in the mid 1990s, the New York Daily News circulated 2 million copies and often attracted national attention with its striking front-page headlines. The paper managed to retain its reputation for journalistic excellence, even as it has survived revolving-door owners, labor strikes, rapidly falling circulation and several rounds of layoffs in recent years. It has won 15 Pulitzer Prizes, the most recent coming just one year ago, when the paper received the Pulitzer Public Service Award for its coverage of the police department’s widespread abuse of eviction rules.8 In 2017, tronc, which has 77 papers and has significantly cut staff at the other large papers in its portfolio, acquired the Daily News for one dollar plus the assumption of liabilities. In August 2018, tronc laid off half of the remaining newsroom staff, leaving only 50 journalists to cover the five boroughs of largest city in the country. In a memo, company executives said the remaining staff would focus on “breaking news – especially in the areas of crime and civil justice.”9
When the largest newspaper chain in the country, GateHouse, acquired The Providence Journal in 2014, layoffs started before the deal even closed. The Journal, known as “ProJo,” bills itself as the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country. Throughout its 189-year history, the paper has won four Pulitzer Prizes, covering the state of Rhode Island and its capital city of Providence with more than 180,000 residents. In the 1990s, the paper boasted a circulation of 200,000 and a newsroom with more than 300 journalists. By July 2018, newsroom employment had been cut by 75 percent, bringing the staffing levels below 100. According to the NewsGuild-CWA, there were fewer than 20 reporters and columnists responsible for covering both state and city government. When asked by a former reporter why the Providence Journal no longer covered routine government meetings, Kirk Davis, CEO of GateHouse, replied that “covering routine government meetings doesn’t automatically equate to earning ‘watchdog status.”10
A poll of guild representatives at 12 papers owned by Digital First Media, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country, indicated the company has slashed staff by more than twice the national average since 2012. At the Digital First-owned Denver Post, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for its coverage of the Aurora theater shooting, newsroom staffing has been reduced over the past six years from more than 180 to fewer than 70 journalists, who are responsible for covering a metro area with more than 2 million people.11
These cuts have also affected Digital First’s smaller daily papers, sometimes more severely. The dozen or so Digital First papers in the Philadelphia area contributed more than $18 million toward the company’s $160 million in profit in 2017 and led the company with a 30 percent profit margin. At the 23,000-circulation, 142-year-old Delaware County (Pennsylvania) Daily Times, the sole daily newspaper serving a county of more than 560,000 residents,12 newsroom staffing has been reduced from 100 to less than 30. In nearby Montgomery County, with a population of 800,000 residents, staffing at the 10,370-circulation Pottstown Mercury, which has received two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial writing and photography, has been cut from 73 in 2012 to 13. “I never thought it would get this bad,” said Valerie Arkoosh, the chairwoman of the Montgomery Board of Commissioners. “There is virtually no coverage of school board meetings anymore. If [they] don't have the time to watch the stream [of the school board meetings], how do [they] know what's going on?”13
When metro, state and suburban papers – ranging from New York’s Daily News to the Providence Journal and Pottstown Mercury – dramatically curtail coverage of local government meetings, citizens in a community are left without the information they need to make important decisions. At a 2018 meeting of county and city communicators from across North Carolina,14 participants bemoaned the lack of coverage of routine government meetings by local newspapers and worried that corruption is more likely to flourish at both the state and local levels. Other research has shown that governments tend to become less efficient when reporters do not shine a light on the actions of public officials.15 Investigative journalism that wins prizes often results from reporting on routine, often tedious, town council or zoning board meetings, according to Howell Raines, former executive editor of The New York Times. Without aggressive boots-on-the-ground news coverage of these meetings by newspapers, “the news chain itself suffers,” he said. 16