Local news bolsters democracy. But pandemic cuts have wounded newsrooms in battleground states like Arizona.
By Gabby Miller
In mid-October, Gannett—the largest newspaper company in the country—announced a new round of voluntary buyouts for its employees. While departures won’t begin until December 1, 2020, the deadline to accept a buyout was October 27, exactly one week before Election Day. Now, as staffers at 250 dailies continue to cover the aftermath of an acrimonious and historic election, they must confront existential questions about their futures in an industry necessary for civic engagement and an informed electorate.
At the Arizona Republic, the newsroom response to the buyout offer “is a combination of anger that [Gannett] is still cutting, concern about how we're going to manage the workload with fewer people, and, for some, resignation that this is the only solution that these media executives can come up with,” Rebekah Sanders, a reporter at the paper and the elected unit chair of its guild, says. “We’re just going to be cut until there’s no newsroom left.”
Over the past seven months, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism has tracked a range of newsroom cutbacks fueled by a global pandemic. Those cutbacks have overlapped with the intensification of an election year shaped by a historic confluence of events: the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, protests against police brutality and systemic racism, and widespread misinformation aimed at undermining the integrity of the election itself. Numerous studies and reports have demonstrated the critical role local news plays in civic engagement; threats to local news imperil access to accurate information and voter turnout. In 2016,he Pew Research Center found that people with stronger ties to local news in their communities were more likely to vote in local elections.
Cutbacks to local news are vividly felt in battleground states such as Arizona, whose “very important 11 electoral votes” have taken up greater space in the national political discourse. Although the results are not yet certified, President-elect Joe Biden is projected to take the state by only half a percentage point-—an electoral win that helped carry Biden over the finish line alongside Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. It’s also the first time since 1952 that Arizona will be represented by two Democratic senators in Washington; Mark Kelly will be joining Senator Krysten Sinema after defeating Republican incumbent Senator Martha McSally last week. What was once an historically conservative stronghold is, at least for the time being, solidly purple, a shift attributed by many to a deepening urban and rural divide that favors Democrats and a rapidly growing Latino population that accounts for roughly a third of the state’s population. That voting bloc, according to national exit polls, favored Biden nearly 2 to 1 in Arizona.
At the Republic—Arizona’s largest daily newspaper by far, with a print circulation of 130,000—the October buyout offers follow a wave of pandemic-related furloughs earlier this year that already reduced newsroom capacity by 25 percent in the second quarter and by roughly another 5 percent in the third quarter. The newsroom staff currently numbers 120, down from 450 in 2007. Its accountability reporting and in-depth investigative work persist; this election cycle, for instance, staffers dug through thousands of posts, comments, photos and videos from a private Facebook page to reveal how the Patriots movement, a group sharing racist memes and violent fantasies, became a force in Arizona politics. But such work continues in spite of cutbacks that chip away at the abilities of local journalists to serve their communities.
The Arizona Capitol Times, a small six-person newsroom owned by a division of Gannett called BridgeTower Media, covers state politics, government, and a range of local and state agencies. After laying off a reporter (as well as a clerical worker) in May, the Capitol Times newsroom is now down to only three reporters. A reduced workforce in tandem with the firehouse of election news has displaced routine hyperlocal coverage, and the deluge of daily deadlines has given little time for more in-depth reporting, like this 2016 investigation into house lawmakers who were logging tens of thousands of personal miles on government vehicles. Pay cuts announced in April further imperiled morale for staff in a city with skyrocketing rental prices and an ever-increasing cost of living. (BridgeTower Media could not be reached for comment).
The Phoenix New Times, an alt-weekly owned by Voice Media Group with a long history of accountability reporting, has also endured layoffs and pay cuts. On March 17, the company announced salaries would be reduced by 25 percent. (Pay was restored in less than a month, with the help of small-business loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.) One week after the salary cuts, audience engagement editor Bri Malloy was laid off; two months later, the culture editor was let go. “It was looking like they were just going to start laying off members of the editorial department left and right,” Lauren Cusimano, the New Times’ food editor, says. “I felt it, at least. I was like, ‘Am I next? Am I going to get a phone call from our editor apologetically firing me?’” After a series of voluntary departures that followed suit shortly after, the New Times was left without any full-time staff reporters for about a month going into the summer. By June, two new staff writers joined the newsroom; on their third day, it was announced salaries would be cut again, this time by 15 percent, due in part to Congress’ failure to renew the loans program. (Voice Media Group has not responded to email inquiries about details of the cutbacks.)
All in all, at least seventeen newsrooms in Arizona were likely affected at some point by COVID-19 related layoffs, pay cuts, and furloughs due to chainwide cutbacks announced at additional media companies such as Lee Enterprises, Meredith Corporation, and others.
A range of digital outlets has stepped into the void left behind by the closure of over 2,100 newspapers nationwide as of 2018. The Arizona Mirror, a public policy-and-politics-focused nonprofit founded in 2018 and supported by a philanthropy-funded business model, has so far been left unscathed by the pandemic. The Mirror, which has a staff of four, is an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit network dedicated to putting more reporters in state capitals where resources are lacking. Editor Jim Small, who has worked in local political reporting since 2004, says the reporting presence at the state capitol has all but disappeared. “When I started, there were two giant press rooms in the State Senate, one for broadcast and one for print,” he says. Now, “there’s no press room at the Capitol anymore. [Reporters] have all been moved off-site.”
Courier Newsroom, a left-leaning news network backed by donors with ties to the Democratic party, has made headlines for setting up shop in swing states, including Arizona, where it oversees The Copper Courier. The reach of an outlet such as the Copper Courier, however, can be limited; as Margaret Sullivan wrote in a recent column for the Washington Post, Facebook omitted the Courier Newsroom network from its news tabs and banned its content containing advertising in the week running up to the election, because it didn’t fit Facebook’s “news” criteria. (Meanwhile, Sullivan writes, right-wing and pro-Trump news outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, and The Federalist have found a comfortable home on Facebook’s news tab. It seems the decision comes down to a question of an outlet’s funding versus its political affiliation, although Facebook’s policy does not make a clear distinction between the two.)
Elsewhere, ProPublica announced an initiative this month creating regional units in the south and southwest to tackle community-specific issues. The southwest hub, complete with a six-person reporting unit, will be stationed in Phoenix. In a press release, Charles Ornstein, ProPublica’s managing editor for local, said, “The rapid decline of local reporting is a crisis challenging democracy itself, leaving communities without information that is critical to their ability to hold powerful interests and decision-makers accountable.” But as ProPublica President Richard Tofel told Sullivan in her recent book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, “no matter how much the nonprofit journalism sector grows, it’s unlikely to replace a thriving newspaper in every good-sized town in America.”
There’s an insidious side to what’s filling the void of traditional journalism, too. Last year, an investigation by the Tow Center’s Priyanjana Bengani discovered 450 “pink slime” partisan sites posing as local news outlets; in the run-up to the election, that network increased almost threefold to 1,200. Many of these websites contain low-cost, algorithmically generated stories promoting partisan talking points. At least 21 of them target Arizona.
"It's so perverse,” Sanders, the Republic reporter and union chair, says about these dubious sites masquerading as local news. “Here are professionally trained journalists in Phoenix at the local newspaper, struggling to make ends meet, but so dedicated to verifying facts, and talking to experts and providing vetted trustworthy information.”
Since election day, two of these Arizona-specific pink slime outlets owned by Metric Media—the Grand Canyon Times and Mohave Today—have been pushing a widely debunked conspiracy theory that poll workers deceptively encouraged Trump voters to fill out their ballots with sharpies in order to invalidate their vote. Known as ‘Sharpiegate,’ it is a stark example of the importance local news plays in civic engagement. According to research by Media Matters, the conspiracy theory spread like wildfire on social media platforms on Election Day, especially in Arizona-related and pro-Trump Facebook groups. Days later, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo used her show to promote a lawsuit filed in Arizona over the use of Sharpies at the ballot box (the lawsuit was later dropped after Biden was declared the winner, but the Trump campaign has since launched its own lawsuit claiming poll workers “incorrectly rejected” some votes cast in-person on election day). Such a widely-promoted conspiracy heightens legitimate anxieties amongst voters on election results that Trump and Republicans continue to contest; Americans, however, are more likely to trust reporting from local television and newspaper outlets, compared to national outlets, especially among Republicans.
Despite local officials’ attempts to quell concerns, “that doesn’t matter if someone you trust on your social network says that [using Sharpies] isn’t okay, just because of the way people trust their friends and others they’ve gained respect for,” says Jen Fifield, the Arizona Republic’s Maricopa County and Phoenix government and politics reporter. While the flurry of misinformation was quickly picked up by national media, the Republic also covered the story extensively—with the advantage of better sourcing, a deeper knowledge of codes and statutes, and more eyes on daily litigation in local courts. Fifield believes readers know to trust the Republic. “I know there’s a lot of talk of ‘the media,’” she says, “but I think a lot of our readers recognize that we’re at the ground level.”
Election Day has come and gone, but the results will continue to be litigated publicly for weeks or even months to come as conspiracies and misinformation continue to poison the information ecosystem. Meanwhile, as the pandemic rages on, the nation prepares for yet another wave of infections. If this year is any indicator, more local newsroom cutbacks are an inevitability, coming at a grave cost to many already underserved communities and an increasingly fragile democracy.