Saving the Essential Mission of Local Journalism

From a story “Will the Chicago Tribune Survive?” by Tribune reporters David Jackson and Gary Marx in the New York Times:

We are investigative reporters in a great American city infamous for its corruption and murders.

In recent years, we and our colleagues have exposed rapes and assaults inside nursing homes, deadly hazards in children’s toys, the staggering prevalence of sexual violence in Chicago’s public schools, grievous failure in America’s extradition system, mercury in store-bought tuna fish, prostitution schemes in residential treatment centers for foster children and rampant corruption at the highest levels of Illinois government.

Spurred by this reporting, federal, state and local legislators have changed laws in ways that have made people safer and our notoriously crooked government a little cleaner.

But now that type of journalism faces an urgent threat. The hedge fund Alden Global Capital in November acquired 32 percent of Tribune Publishing Company shares, becoming the largest shareholder, and it is angling for control of the company. . . .

The Washington Post and The New York Times have managed to build global audiences and advertising bases. But the national press has not filled the vacuum left in local communities. . . .

Nor, for the most part, have online-only journalism nonprofits. The popular narrative is that these web-based news labs are stepping unto the breach to fulfill the basic mission of struggling legacy newsrooms. But many have relatively tiny readerships and specialized missions. . . .

Facebook and other social media sites give the impression that they offer everything you need to know. But, in reality, most of Facebook’s news is generated in traditional newsrooms. If we disappear, its news feed will consist of little more than news releases and opinion-based screeds.

Unless Alden reverses course—perhaps in repentance for the avaricious destruction it has wrought in Denver and elsewhere—we need a civic-minded local owner or group of owners. So do our Tribune Publishing colleagues.

The alternative is a ghost version of The Chicago Tribune—a newspaper that can no longer carry out its essential watchdog mission. Illinois’s most vulnerable people would lose a powerful guardian, its corrupt politicians would be freer to exploit and plunder, and this prairie metropolis would lose the common forum that binds together and lifts its citizens.

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