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Phantom Candidates and Ghost Newspapers

What the election of George Santos reveals about the catastrophic collapse of local news.
January 5, 2023
Phantom Candidates and Ghost Newspapers
Congressman-elect George Devolder Santos during a press conference on November. 9, 2022 in Baldwin, New Yotk. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

After the New York Times and other publications reported that newly elected Rep. George Santos probably didn’t descend from Holocaust survivors or run an animal-protection charity, or [gestures broadly] any of it, many suggested that it would have been more helpful for the press to dig into this before the election.

“This would all have been exposed before the election if local newspapers were not running on fumes,” tweeted former Senator Claire McCaskill.

A few news cycles later it emerged that actually the local press had reported on the Santos story. A local paper, the North Shore Leader, had declared that the Republican nominee was “most likely just a fabulist—a fake.”

So which is it: The triumph of the local press or a sign of its demise? More the latter, though for some surprising reasons.

Let’s start with the scoop. In September,  the North Shore Leader reported that Santos’ financial disclosure form in 2020 claimed no assets over $5,000:

And his income was only just over $50,000 for the prior year, derived from a venture fund called “Harbor Hill Capital,” that was closed and seized in 2020 by US federal prosecutors as a “Ponzi Scheme.” Santos was the New York Director of that “fund.”

Now, in a filing dated September 6th, 2022, Santos claims his assets are now as much as $11 million, including personal bank accounts of between $1 million and $5 million; a Condo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, of between $500,000 and $1 million; and business interests of between $1 million and $5 million.

The paper, whose staff had been hearing rumors of various Santos concoctions for a while, followed up with that stinging editorial calling him a fraud.

Then . . . nothing happened. No other media outlets pursued the story. Not the six local TV stations or WNYC, or Politico, New York, the Times, the Daily News. Not even Newsday, the formerly-august news source for Long Island. Grant Lally, the publisher and owner of the North Shore Leader, told me he didn’t get a single call from another publication inquiring about it. “If this had run 25 years ago, it would have been gobbled up,” he said. “There’d have been 20 follow ups from Newsday and other publications and the weeklies.”

His reference to the weeklies is important. A couple of decades ago, many individual towns on Long Island had robust weekly papers that both did original reporting and amplified stories from other outlets. They’ve mostly merged into larger chains, and many don’t even have editorial offices in the covered towns anymore. For instance, a few days after the Times piece, the website of the Mineola American, which covers the county seat of Nassau County, still hadn’t mentioned the story. But maybe that’s not a surprise: The site hadn’t been updated since May.

Another part of this case, though, is the attention economy. Succeeding in media today requires doing good journalism and then building your own audience for it, and the North Shore Leader didn’t successfully disseminate their scoop. They didn’t mention their story on their Facebook or Instagram accounts (not updated since 2021), nor did they tweet about it, though that stems more from them not having a Twitter account. Which isn’t really surprising since the paper doesn’t have anyone working social media hard—in part because they’ve shrunk. “We lost half our advertising during COVID and most of it really hasn’t come back,” Lally explained.

In other words: The whole local media ecosystem is compromised. Even when someone manages to get a good story, the rest of the system can’t amplify it or pursue it. In the past, the food chain worked pretty reliably. If a small paper broke a story, it would be picked up by a bigger paper, or the Associated Press, which would prompt the TV stations and radio stations to dive in. Now the hyperlocal small newsrooms rarely do investigative work, and when they do, the bigger players don’t pay attention.

And in smaller communities, the weekly papers are the entire foodchain, so their demise is even more consequential.

All of which takes us to the big picture: The collapse of local news is both a colossal and catastrophic development in America. More than 3,400 weekly papers have closed since 2004. Newspaper advertising revenue has dropped 82 percent since 2000. More than 1,800 communities have no local news source. Of the counties with no newspapers, 93 percent have populations under 50,000.

As a result, the number of reporters has plummeted by 57 percent since 2004—and this decline has come as both population and local government spending have risen. (The decline in the ratio of reporters-per-$100-million-in-state-and-local-government-spending is 67 percent.)

This is why media scholars invented a new term to go alongside “news deserts”—“ghost newspapers.” There are thousands of these slim papers full of wire copy, press releases and ads. One study showed that only 17 percent of stories in local papers were on local civic affairs.

One consequence of this hollowing out is that voters have little to no information on which to base their choices in local elections. This would seem to be a fairly significant problem for, you know, democracy. And ironically, the more local the election, the worse the coverage is likely to be.

But the harm goes much deeper. Other studies show that areas with less local news have more corruption, fewer competitive elections, less resident involvement in PTAs, and even lower bond ratings. Lally, who ran for Congress as a Republican, says Republican voters should care more about the decline of local news. “It’s about quality control,” he said. “People on both sides shouldn’t be accepting fraudsters.”

There’s now evidence that the decline of local news exacerbates polarization, too. Studies show, for instance, that in areas with less coverage, voters are less likely to split their tickets. That’s because the vacuums created by the contraction of local news are filled largely by national cable TV, radio, and social media. The contraction of local news accelerates the nationalization of politics while at the same time, we have less of the kinds of information that binds together communities—everything from obituaries to high school sports.

But wait—there’s more. Many communities have moved from good information, to no information, to deceptive information. A new wave of “pink slime” sites—often set up by political activists—to impersonate traditional news sites while actively promoting particular candidates or businesses.

Two scholars recently concluded that most discussions about democracy’s woes “don’t account for the most dramatic change in the civic life U.S. communities have experienced in the last 20 years: the decimation of the local news media.”

Philanthropic organizations ought to view hiring local reporters as one of the most important elements of strengthening democracy. And we need to advance public policies that could help local news without endangering editorial independence.

This isn’t a new idea, by the way. The Founding Fathers instituted a postal subsidy to subsidize the running of newspapers. The spiritual cousin to that approach is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which provides tax credits to newsrooms to hire and retain local journalists, to small businesses that advertise in local press and to consumers who purchase local news.

Perhaps Rep. Santos could co-sponsor the bill.

Correction, January 9, 2023, 8:28 p.m.: Due to an editing error, he piece originally said, “Of the counties with populations under 50,000, 93 percent don’t have a newspaper.” This is incorrect. Of the counties with no newspapers, 93 percent have populations under 50,000. The text has been changed accordingly.

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is the Chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and co-founder of Report for America.