One day in September 2019, I sashayed into the lobby of the Washington, Pa., Observer-Reporter less tardily than usual, at the crack of 10 a.m. My colleagues from the little newspaper had all gathered for “Breakfast with Bob.”
Bob Pinarski, our general manager, had already made some remarks. His breakfast, I was disappointed to learn, was a bunch of pastries cheaply bought from a grocery store. I pondered the poor quality of the muffins or Danishes or what-have-you as I shoved several into my mouth and proceeded to chew sullenly. Thus fortified, I asked some co-workers what this whole thing was about.
Per their account, Pinarski had scolded his subordinates—whose numbers were trickling lower and lower due to sporadic and unceremonious rounds of layoffs—about their obligation to “shop local” to help the businesses whose advertising dollars were keeping the lights on. They said the tirade took an even more bizarre turn when he proceeded to browbeat those present about the importance of listing homes through a realty firm called SWC (more on this peculiar entity will come below) and of having their friends and family do so too.
The lecture probably didn’t do anything for the staff’s already-flagging morale, but I’m not criticizing Pinarski. I actually like him, even though he laid me off in May; I blame COVID-19. As far as I’m concerned, his only sin was feeding me bad pastries. In fact, Pinarski had said more in his rant than he and other managers had revealed during any staff meeting—attempts to resuscitate the flagging little newspaper were clearly not working.
The revenue situation, and accompanying layoffs, were by no means unusual in the industry. Independently of the coronavirus, the U.S. journalism workforce fell by nearly a quarter from 2008 to 2019, per the Pew Research Center. Those cuts primarily occurred in newspapers, which lost roughly half their workers over the same time period. Such dire straits have proved navigable to an opportunistic few, as local newspapers are bought up by a small number of publishers.
In the fall of 2018, the Observer-Reporter, owned for more than a century by a local family, sold to Ogden Newspapers. Ogden is a venture of the billionaire Nutting family, a dynasty from Wheeling, W.Va. (Unfortunately for all involved, they gave me no severance package when they fired me, so I’m free to write whatever I want.) In Pittsburgh, the family is notorious because its current frontman, Bob Nutting, is blamed for running the beloved Pirates into the ground since becoming the principal owner of the franchise in 2007.
Really, the Nuttings are a newspaper family and have been since their ancestor H.C. Ogden founded the Wheeling News in 1890. His eponymous company now boasts more than 100 titles, including more than 40 dailies, across the country.
SWC is a creature of media consolidation. Pinarski led the venture from when it was founded in 2013, while he was publisher of the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, Pa., one county over from Washington. SWC became part of the Nuttings’ empire when they bought the H-S from Calkins Media, another local-news conglomerate. The new owners kept Pinarski on as executive director of SWC and named him general manager—not publisher, strangely—of the O-R.
I’ve never seen the balance sheets, but I suspect and hope the Nuttings pay their accountants better than their reporters. Pinarski reported to both of his jobs in a corner office of the newsroom. The respective buildings that house SWC’s Uniontown office, and the H-S, are owned by the same subsidiary of Ogden Newspapers. SWC has offices in four states, and some of its other locations share addresses with Ogden newspapers. At least at the O-R, we ran frequent ads for SWC. We quoted agents as “experts” in news articles, with no disclosure of the companies’ relationship.
All of this is to argue there’s certainly a conflict of interest, but hardly an unprecedented one in the business of Hearst and Pulitzer. Good journalism was always incidental to the greed and vanity that were the real motives of the owners. The unfortunate part of what’s happening now is that with newsroom staffs shrinking to the sub-skeletal, there’s less and less room even for incidentally good journalism.
Local reporters used to stay in their beats, cultivating sources and keeping an eye on loose threads for years or sometimes decades. Even before the Nuttings bought us out, my “beat” was usually whatever the last thing I wrote about was. At least for me, daily planning consisted of finding something I could turn around by the early afternoon. I passed on covering numerous issues I considered news simply because I didn’t think I could package them quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were normal in the local newspapers that used to be reliable pulse-takers of their communities—something that was no less true if it often meant that newspapers were driven by the worst biases and blind spots of said communities.
Still, there’s something to be said for the straightforward profit motives of people like the Nuttings any day, even if it’s a bit of a mystery how the Nuttings’ newspapers turn a profit at this point. Shortly before the election, I applied for a job—if one can use the term for a position that lasts only three months—with a “pop-up nonprofit” called VoteBeat. The project’s idea was to cover the election in important states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas, with a special focus on combating “misinformation” in places with little or no local news coverage. (The organizers ultimately hired someone else, so you’re free to read this as sour grapes.)
Even though I wanted the work, it struck me at the time that this arrangement was still a poor substitute for decent general-interest reporting. Traditional newspapers give their readers something other than electoral politics to chew on. It’s no coincidence that VoteBeat was affiliated with ProPublica, an organization that does fair reporting for an audience that appears to consist only of other journalists.
Meanwhile, tech companies like Google are deciding that their influence as curators of the news hasn’t been socially corrosive enough. They’re not taking steps to produce it themselves. The newspaper of record for Washington, D.C., shares its owner with Amazon and Whole Foods. Talk about the enemies of the people!