Heath Freeman, Trinity class of ’02, has garnered controversy as of late for his role in destroying local newspapers. Freeman is the president of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund with the subsidiary Digital First Media, a newspaper chain that has been buying up local newspapers and dismantling them all across the country. The Denver Post, the most widely read newspaper in Colorado, has seen its newsroom shrink from 250 staff members to 100 in less than a decade, and now orders to cut thirty more reporters will reduce the remaining staff size by one third. Amidst calls for Duke to cut ties with Freeman, there remains the opportunity for conversations about the importance of local newspapers.
Local newspapers have been struggling in the past two decades due to the growing prominence of digital media. The growth in digital media has led to a $2 billion growth in digital revenue between 2004 and 2014. Simultaneously, print revenue has decreased by $30 billion in the same period. Acquiescing to the will of the market, the need for more clicks has led to the rise in clickbait journalism, and increasingly specialized groups have replaced the traditional role of an all-encompassing local or regional newspaper.
These facts should terrify any American still clinging to the idea of democracy given that local journalism covers local politics in a manner that The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed do not. There is no glory in being a beat reporter covering city hall meetings, but such “bland” reporting nonetheless represents some of the most important journalism in the nation. For instance, in Bell, California, pop. 38,000, no one knew that public officials were being compensated in six figure salaries until the Los Angeles Times ran investigative pieces regarding their unparalleled salaries. Public employees’ salaries are public information in California, and all the LA Times did was investigate public records in the place of a local newspaper. Bell’s situation, though unique in magnitude, is occurring throughout the United States on municipal and state levels; between 2003 and 2014, there has been a 30 percent decrease in statehouse reporters. Without local journalists, statehouses, zoning boards, school boards and courthouses can devolve into opaque, undemocratic bodies with no one to hold them accountable to their communities.
Lest we forget, local officials are not the only members of our community who need to be held accountable. The Duke Chronicle occupies an important, essential area of campus life with its reporting on Duke, such as the Tallman Trask scandal of 2016 and Duke’s questionable offshore investments. Dependent on a staff of dedicated, pro-bono student journalists and writers, The Chronicle, like many local-run newspapers, plays an essential role in reporting and commenting on various facets of our campus community that would otherwise be ignored by the institution’s news outlets. As opinion journalists dedicated to commenting on the state of the University, we condemn the actions of those like Freeman who seek to destroy—whether intentionally or unintentionally—local journalism through self-serving capitalistic purposes.
The state of politics in 2018 demands responsible journalism to keep the populace informed on matters on both the local and national levels. Without local journalism, certain regionally-defined issues—whether it be a future Ferguson or Flint—will inevitably remain ignored within a landscape governed by a monopoly of big-news outlets limited to few metropolitan areas. Students who do care about accountability and journalistic transparency should take note of the University’s connections to Freeman and judge whether or not his practices are in line with Duke’s mission statement.