Maureen Cain, right, of the Aromas Progressive Action League, addresses the audience at a panel discussion the group hosted titled "Local Democracy Dies in Darkness." Three local journalists made up the panel. They are Mark Paxton, left, Julia Reynolds Martinez and Wayne Norton.

Local democracy dies in darkness, especially if there are no local newspapers to inform citizens about what’s happening in their communities. That was the message from a panel of journalists gathered to discuss what has happened to newspapers and ask where is the consumer getting their news today? 

The title of a panel discussion, “Local democracy dies in darkness” was held Jan. 27 at the Aromas Grange Hall and sponsored by the Aromas Progressive Action League. About 40 people attended the event. The panelists recognized the difficulties faced by journalists working for local newspapers but also saw bright spots popping up in new grassroots media.

Professional journalists Julia Reynolds Martinez and Mark Paxton were the panelists. The event was moderated by Wayne Norton, also a veteran local journalist.

The focus was the hundreds of local newspapers across the United States that have either closed or been dramatically downsized by corporate owners in recent years. Most people think their demise came about because of the Internet and the Great Recession. That’s partly true, the panelists said, but the reason is more complicated than just the Internet and the economic downturn.

Martinez is co-founder of the online, nonprofit news site, Voices of Monterey Bay. She was a criminal justice reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting and also at the Monterey County Herald.

During the recession, Martinez said, there was a shift in the newspaper industry that could have been viewed as a challenge. Instead, she said, the shift turned into a disaster. Hedgefunds bought up hundreds of daily newspapers and proceeded to slash news staffs. Corporate news organizations have done the same thing, she said.

According to Martinez, this trend has played out locally at the San Jose Mercury News, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and The Herald. All are owned by the Digital First Media newspaper chain, whose parent company is Alden Global Capital. Alden Global Capital is a hedgefund in New York controlled by Randall D. Smith, chief of investments.

Alden Global Capital, Martinez explained, manages $2 billion in assets, including Digital First Media.

But Alden Global Capital isn’t the only hedgefund gobbling up distressed newspapers. Another is Tronc, a media conglomerate. It’s main shareholder is Michael W. Ferro, a business magnate and founder of the investment firm Merrick Ventures.

According to an article Reynolds wrote for The Nation last year, hedgefunds have bought and dramatically slashed 679 hometown newspapers, reaching a combined audience of 12.8 million people. Of the top 10 newspaper chains in the U.S., Martinez said, six are owned by hedgefunds.

The goal of the hedgefunds, Martinez said, is not to keep struggling papers alive but to siphon off assets and profits and dispose of what remains. That strategy, she said, has resulted in a reduction of newspaper jobs, from 46,700 in 2009 to 32,900 in 2015. 

Ironically, 69 percent of the U.S. population rely on newspapers or news websites for current information, according to a Nielsen Scorborough study. And that 69 percent includes young people.

“The small time papers are the ones that are being left behind,” Martinez said. That includes a number of them in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Paxton is a former editor and publisher of the Hollister Freelance and the Pinnacle newspaper. He led staffs that won numerous awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Paxton was a founding board member of BenitoLink and helped design and plan San Benito County’s online news and information website.

Paxton said he was part of the golden age of newspapers. “I rode that horse right into the ground,” he told the audience.

He recalled McClatchy Company buying local newspapers, then going public with its stock. Later, McClatchy sold the papers to a Midwest newspaper company, with an attitude that it was the only game in town. Paxton said that attitude didn’t work in this competitive news market.

Paxton recalled going to newspaper conferences where people were told by media pundits to pay no attention to the Internet.

Small community newspapers, Paxton said, are the fabric of the community. Where else, he mused, can you find out, “who’s wed, who’s bled and who’s dead.”

Local reporters, he said, play an important watchdog role in communities, especially when it comes to local government. “When there’s a notebook in the room, it helps determine public officials’ behavior,” he said. “There’s a fundamental lack of transparency and it’s going on all over the country.”

Newspaper coverage of local events and government, he explained, help start a local conversation on issues and hopefully, that leads to change.

So what’s the answer to keeping local newspapers robust and profitable?

“We have to get inspired for change,” Martinez said. That may mean local investors buying local papers from hedgefunds like Alden Global Capital. She said she has a spirit of hope that someone will come in with a different model.

Paxton said online newspapers and nonprofit online newspapers are probably the wave of the future. And, he said, we have to come to the realization that we have to pay for our news.

Martinez said local foundations need to step up and help support newspapers and nonprofit online newspapers.

“It’s a brand new thing,” she said. “It’s the wild West. It’s a new world.” She said she has learned how to embrace podcasts as a way to present news stories.

The public, the panel said, can subscribe to local newspapers and support online nonprofit newspapers.

At Voices of Monterey Bay, Martinez said, the nonprofit holds workshops to teach young people about the media, how to write good news stories and how to read critically. VOMB also is working to allow people in prison to tell their stories online.

Norton, who worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Hollister, Gilroy and Morgan Hill, urged people to read more, both in print and online.

A member of the audience asked how readers can judge the truth of a news article.

“I think you have to learn to become a critical reader,” Paxton said. “’Who says?’ needs to be asked in every paragraph of a story. … You need to go into the media frenzy with your eyes wide open.”

“I think there’s some self-educating that needs to go into it,” Martinez said.

She also said newsrooms need to reflect the communities they are covering. That includes hiring more women and different ethnic groups.

Norton summed up the event by saying: “There’s a lot of stuff that’s happening that affects your daily life, and if you don’t know about it, there’s not going to be time to make a correction. … Democracy means all of us have to be a part of this.”