Barton Swaim on Margaret Sullivan:”Perhaps I’m naive to think America’s premier media critic would dare to criticize the media.” 

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Barton Swaim headlined “News You Can Lose” about the Margaret Sullivan book Ghosting the News:

News coverage of state and local government affairs has never been great, but in the past decade or two it has ranged between abysmal and nonexistent. Craigslist began siphoning off newspapers’ ad revenue in the early 2000s; social media gave people the feeling of keeping up with the “news” without actually reading any news; and all the while newspapers—not including this one, I’m happy to say—were gullible enough to believe that they could give away their content on the internet and make up for the consequent drop in subscriptions with digital-ad revenue. The result: Regional newspapers, already struggling for attention in the 1990s, have spent the past two decades shedding employees and closing their doors.

Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor of the New York Times and now the media columnist for the Washington Post, recounts this history in “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” The story of the Youngstown, Ohio, Vindicator is sadly typical. “There was a time,” Ms. Sullivan writes, “when the Vindicator was able to send a staff reporter or a freelance stringer to every municipal board meeting and every school board meeting in the surrounding three-county area.” An employee union went on strike for nine months in 2004 just as ad revenue began migrating elsewhere. The Vindicator never recovered. . . .

What’s really to blame for all this destruction? If Ms. Sullivan’s book had been published 10 or 20 years ago, I suspect she would have found much more room to discuss the need for diversity in the newsroom. That was the industry’s chief concern from the 1980s to the 2000s, but—and who could have predicted this?—a heightened obsession with race and identity somehow failed to reverse the decline. Ms. Sullivan dutifully mentions that, as editor of the Buffalo News, she “aggressively hired people of color” but otherwise leaves the topic alone. In “Ghosting the News,” blame attaches to a wider array of culprits: Facebook and Craigslist for killing ad revenue, unimaginative newspaper chains whose answer to every financial problem is to cut staff, private-equity firms that buy struggling papers and asset-strip them before selling them off.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a Washington Post columnist couldn’t find a negative word to say about the practice of journalism in America’s newsrooms, but I thought perhaps she might give it a throwaway paragraph. Nope. Ms. Sullivan writes of “journalism,” sometimes of journalistic “talent,” as though it’s a natural resource, the same in quantity and quality at all times. . . .

I do not like to fault books for the things they don’t include, but allow me to suggest a few trends in the field of news journalism that make the work of selling it to ordinary Americans more difficult than it once was. (1) The search for young, woke readers: People willing to pay for news want to know the score of Friday night’s football game and the gist of a tax hike proposed by the mayor. If they want to know about the new Drake album or trans dating conventions, they have the internet. (2) The nationalization of everything: Reporters at regional papers often appear to believe that the most important thing to know about the state’s governor or the local congressman is his attitude to Donald Trump, not his position on a subsidy for a local company or plans to build a highway extension. (3) The charade of “objectivity”: American news reporters, for the most part unlike their European counterparts, have been taught to pretend they have no view on the issues of the day, although it’s plain to any person of moderate intelligence that they have very strong views and that those views mostly tend to the left.

But perhaps I’m naive to think “America’s premier media critic,” as the book’s back cover proclaims Ms. Sullivan to be, would dare to criticize the media.

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