2017 was a disastrous year for local news

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Local news matters now more than ever -- and it’s also in unprecedented peril.

In the midst of an unparalleled presidential war on the press, people still trust and rely on their local news. This year we’ve watched local journalists contribute invaluable on-the-ground reporting that helps communities and saves lives -- whether it’s about natural disasters, a mass shooting, or a public health crisis -- while adding valuable local context to national stories.

Although the decline of local news certainly did not begin this year, 2017 has dealt the industry some particularly heavy blows. And right-wing corporations are already swooping in to fill the voids that dying local outlets leave behind. As conservative media expert Will Sommer theorized recently, 2018 may become “the year that every media market in the country gets its own Fox News-style voice at the local level.”

If that terrifying prospect comes to pass, it will be directly because of the damage done in 2017.

Sinclair quietly pushed pro-Trump propaganda on local news stations across the country -- and it’s only going to get worse

Perhaps the biggest development in local news this year was conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group's nefarious local broadcast news takeover. Sinclair is known for a few unusual tactics: acquiring and consolidating local news stations and severely scaling back resources, deceptively blending paid advertising and straight news reporting (it was just fined $13.3 million for doing this again), and producing “must-run” segments that its news stations across the country are required to air.

Sinclair has long been a right-wing news entity, infusing its political slant into news programming for years. But 2017 was arguably the year Sinclair became a household name as it expanded its right-wing influence on local news in unprecedented ways that could no longer flourish under the radar. It hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide, as its “chief political analyst” in April, then ratcheted up Epshteyn’s influence even further in July. Epshteyn’s must-run “Bottom Line with Boris” segments now air nine times per week on Sinclair’s local news stations -- without substantive introduction or context to signal to viewers exactly what they’re watching: a nationally produced 90-second propaganda segment by an ex-Trump staffer about why people are being too mean to his former boss or why Trump’s latest terrible decision is actually good.

What’s worse: Trump’s Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is helping Sinclair expand. The FCC has moved to end several regulations, making it easier for Sinclair to grow even bigger. Soon, it will likely be injecting right-wing spin into more local media markets in battleground states and major cities ahead of the 2018 and 2020 national elections.

Billionaire Joe Ricketts bought, then shut down, a conglomerate of hyper-local digital outlets

In March, banking billionaire and GOP megadonor Joe Rickettshyperlocal news company DNAInfo purchased the New York City-focused digital outlet Gothamist and its sister sites in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The acquisition followed a round of layoffs at DNAInfo. Shortly after the acquisition, it was reported that Gothamist had deleted from its website five posts that were critical of Ricketts.

By November, Ricketts unceremoniously announced that he had elected to shut down all of the sites. At least some staff reportedly learned of the decision along with the public when they refreshed their own site and instead found an open letter from Ricketts -- and all of their work and past clips erased. (Following media uproar, the past content would later reappear as an “archive.”) The decision put 115 people out of work, with three months of paid “administrative leave” and four weeks of severance.  

A week prior to Ricketts’ unilateral decision to shutter the sites, the New York staff at DNAInfo and Gothamist formally voted to unionize. Ricketts had refused to voluntarily recognize the union prior to the formal vote conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. Ricketts himself and other executives at DNAInfo had fearmongered that unionization could be “the final straw that caused the business to be closed.” He did not mention unionization in his November letter, but his previous pattern of union-busting tactics is unignorable.

Local news on the West Coast is rapidly disintegrating, and it hurts Spanish-speaking communities most

West Coast local media was significantly gutted this year, especially in Los Angeles and Seattle, marginalizing Spanish-speaking communities.

California has lost LAist and SFist to billionaire Joe Ricketts’ spitefulness and watched as Sinclair took over local media markets, including purchasing several Univision affiliates in northern California. In addition to other Sinclair news stations in Bakersfield and Fresno, CA, the broadcasting company also already owns and operates news stations including additional Univision affiliates in Seattle and Portland. The lack of local news diversity for Spanish-speakers is even more stark considering 31.1 percent of Latinx households and 47.7 percent of Spanish-speaking Latinx households have only free broadcast (not cable or satellite) TV for their news.

Sinclair will soon enter the Los Angeles media market as well, with its planned acquisition of KTLA in 2018. Meanwhile, local alternative weekly magazine L.A. Weekly was purchased by a mysterious new shell group and nearly the entirety of its editorial staff was immediately fired without explanation. Days later, the new owners were revealed to be a group of  investors in a post on L.A. Weekly’s site -- but no explanation was given for the mass firing. The new owners, known as Semanal Media, selected “free-market enthusiast” and local opinion editor Brian Calle as the alt-weekly’s new chief executive. Calle and investor David Welch wrote a letter to the publication’s readership weeks after the initial firing spree, acknowledging they’d made missteps in their takeover and appointing one of the few remaining staffers as interim editor. Days later, that staffer was suspended following reporting on his previous offensive tweets. Meanwhile, former LAist Editor-in-Chief Julia Wick noted recently that L.A. Weekly now appears to be re-publishing former staffers’ older work and changing the dates to make it seem like new content. 

And in Seattle, Sinclair already has a foothold with its ownership of local news station KOMO and KUNS, the local affiliate for Univision. Local staff are already fighting back, but Sinclair is set to acquire even more Seattle stations in 2018. KOMO also cut its investigative team in the beginning of the year.

The Seattle Times likewise kicked off the year by losing 23 newsroom staffers “in a combination of buyouts, layoffs, and voluntary departures” as the paper “faces falling ad revenue.” In February, journalists at a group of free Washington community weeklies operated by Issaquah Press published a full-page ad announcing they’d be “for hire” since the publications were shutting down.

Local media newsrooms are downsizing and shutting down across the country, creating local “news deserts”

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) devoted an issue to exploring “a local news solution” this year, writing, “It won’t come as news to many of you that local journalism in our country is in dire shape. Pick your metric -- numbers of reporters, newspapers, readers -- and nearly all the trendlines veer downhill. It’s not a happy story.” As part of the project, CJR launched a new tool designed to track growing local “news deserts” across the country, writing “more and more communities are left with no daily local news outlet at all.” In another article, CJR’s David Uberti cited layoffs in McClatchy-operated newsrooms at The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, and the Tacoma, WA, News Tribune to demonstrate this growing phenomenon. Uberti also pointed to similarly quiet layoffs at Gannett publications in recent months, and later said his own reporting showed “at least 60 staffers, from 15 separate newsrooms” had been let go.

One particular casualty in the desertification of local news has been the free alternative newsweekly. Not every alt-weekly decimation has been as dramatic as L.A. Weekly’s this December, but its shuttering along with several others this year prompted one writer to ask, “Can any alt-weeklies survive anymore?” Both Baltimore’s City Paper and the Knoxville Mercury in Tennessee closed their doors this year, and New York’s Village Voice and the Houston Press both ended their print editions. Others appear to be struggling as 2018 begins: Washington City Paper recently told employees it was cutting salaries by 40 percent as it seeks a new buyer.