To kick off the fall NewsMatch fundraising campaign, the RoundTable hosted an online event Thursday evening featuring RoundTable Editor Susy Schultz talking with Margaret Sullivan, a former Washington Post media columnist and public editor at The New York Times.

Sullivan, who received her master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, worked for more than 30 years at her hometown newspaper The Buffalo News in New York. She started as a summer intern and eventually became the first woman editor at The Buffalo News and the first woman to hold the job of public editor at The New York Times.
Here is the full hour-long discussion between journalist and author Margaret Sullivan and RoundTable Editor Susy Schultz.

After four years at the Times, she signed on to become the media critic for the Washington Post, a job she retired from in August. She is now a visiting professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. She also has written two books: Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy and Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life.

In their discussion, featuring questions from the virtual audience and the RoundTable staff, Schultz and Sullivan tackled the local news crisis in the United States, Donald Trump’s impact on journalism and Elon Musk’s hostile takeover of Twitter.

“People recognize that there are election deniers out there. Of course, a bunch of them just got elected,” Sullivan said. “But this is a threat to democracy, so I think that’s the place where I would put a lot of emphasis right now, because if we don’t have a democracy, we’re not going to have a free press, and vice versa. They do work hand in hand.”

Another serious issue, as Sullivan pointed out and several audience members mentioned, is the rapid decline of U.S. newspapers and reporters at a level not seen in the past.

A stunning 70 million Americans live in counties with zero or only one local news source, and the country has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers since 2005, according to Medill’s Local News Initiative. Two American newspapers, primarily weekly community papers, are going out of business every single week, Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s own Buffalo News used to have somer 200 staff members, which shrunk to around 145 after the 2008 recession. Now, the paper has far fewer than 100 journalists, she pointed out.

“It was hard to see the newsroom that you grew up in, and I really did grow up there, having to shrink so much and change so much,” she said. “So I thought it was a good idea to go do something else.”

The RoundTable’s watch party at Bookends and Beginnings. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Sullivan also talked about dealing with a difficult situation in Buffalo while the paper was covering a mass shooting. At the time, in the early days immediately after the attack, little information was available about what actually happened, she said. As a result, her team wrote about the criminal histories of several of the shooting victims.

But that decision, in retrospect, “really was a form of victim blaming,” Sullivan said. The shooting victims were primarily Black, and the aftermath of that story on the victims ended up airing out decades of grievances from the Black community about the paper’s coverage.

In that situation, Sullivan said all she could do was meet with the community and try to “make amends” and institute changes in the newsroom to address systemic and historic inequities in news coverage.

“We will make mistakes,” Schultz said. “And the only thing you can do is talk about them, be transparent and tell the public, learn from them and figure out how to do better.”

RoundTable Editor Susy Schultz, top, talks with journalist and author Margaret Sullivan at Thursday’s RoundTable event. Credit: Screenshot

Another issue: in today’s news landscape, journalists are facing an avalanche of misinformation on social media and a world where the richest person on the planet, Elon Musk, just took over the primary outlet used by reporters to share their stories.

An alternative platform may eventually come out, but for now, journalists and teachers need to help teach people to differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t, Sullivan said.

Caught in the middle of such a rapidly evolving news environment, journalists need the support of the public, she said. Sullivan floated the idea of a national advertising campaign to teach people how reporters do their jobs and why journalism is important and necessary for a democracy.

“The old model of advertising is essentially gone, and it worked really, really well for a long time. But then, it stopped working well,” Sullivan said. “So we need the public to step forward and help us so that we can do the job for the public.”

Ultimately, Sullivan encouraged the audience to not lose faith and not give up on quality local news.

“Know what good journalism is, and support it and vote,” she said. “Stay tuned in. Don’t get into this mentality of ‘Oh, it’s all so negative. I’m going to turn away from it,’ which you hear a lot about. As American citizens, we need to do our part by staying involved and staying engaged.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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