Newspapers are vanishing, leaving democracy at risk

GJR Founder Charles Klotzer stands with Rick Goldsmith after Goldsmith received the first Rose F. and Charles L. Klotzer award for Free Speech in Service of Democracy on Nov. 11, 2023. (Photo by William H. Freivogel)

Newspapers are dying.

Young people aren’t reading them. Predatory hedge funds are buying them up, laying off reporters, milking them for profits and cutting home delivery. The result is that democracy is losing its eyes and ears and maybe its conscience. 

That was a theme of Rick Goldsmith’s new documentary on the predatory consequences of Alden Global Capital’s acquisition of newspapers from Chicago to San Diego to Baltimore.  

But there was also a more positive message that emerged from the discussion of the future of journalism that followed Goldsmith’s screening of his documentary Nov. 11. That message: Nonprofit news organizations are popping up across the nation, often in places where the secretive Alden hedge fund was dismantling legacy, commercial news organizations. 

Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois, pointed out the rapid growth of nonprofit news organizations. While daily newspaper circulation has shrunk from 60 million in 1990 to about 20 million today, 400 nonprofit news organizations have emerged in the past 14 years to begin to fill the void.

In Chicago, where Alden bought the Chicago Tribune, an already successful neighborhood nonprofit, Block Club News, expanded and public radio station WBEZ acquired the Sun Times. In San Diego, Alden’s acquisition of the San Diego Union Tribune led to greater collaboration between two nonprofits, Voice of San Diego and inewsource. And in Baltimore, the purchase of the Baltimore Sun led directly to the Baltimore Banner nonprofit newsroom.

Goldsmith was at Webster University Nov. 11 to screen “Stripped for Parts: Journalism on the Brink.” The screening highlighted GJR’s 12th Annual First Amendment Celebration and was part of the 32nd Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. 

Goldsmith, known for his documentary about Daniel Ellsberg “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” received the first Rose F. and Charles L. Klotzer award for Free Speech in Service of Democracy. Klotzer, who founded the St. Louis Journalism Review 53 years ago, was present for the ceremony. Klotzer turned 98 this month.  

The audience included a score of St. Louis area high school students from Kirkwood, Webster, Lift for Life, Crossroads and St. Mary’s H.S. Also in attendance were a dozen former Post-Dispatch reporters and area journalists as well as judges, lawyers, GJR contributors and people active in public life. Funds raised pay for the publication of GJR’s weekly newsletter and quarterly magazine now hosted at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. 

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