As someone who spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, it naturally pains me to see what’s happening with it now. It also pains me to read all the gloom and doom pieces about the end of local journalism.
Local newspapers aren’t dead — they’re just in temporary hibernation. Moreover, their decline began long before the COVID-19 pandemic and the arrival of the Internet.
It started, I believe, with something that seemed like a good idea at the time — banding together in media “chains” (an appropriate term, as it turned out). This made some sense economically, because it allowed small newspapers to share the cost of newsprint and other universal expenses. My old newspaper, the News & Advance in Lynchburg, VA, even invested in a humongous press that printed a half dozen other papers of similar size.
The problems started when chains became insatiable, gobbling up every small newspaper (and most of the large ones) in sight. A newspaper is not the same thing as a Dollar General, but the bean counters in corporate headquarters began treating them that way. Where the core value had once been dutifully and accurately reporting the news, it now became simply making money.
When I went to work for the News & Advance, it had been run by the same Lynchburg family for over a century. I didn’t always agree with their editorial stance (basic southern conservatism), but it was obvious that they truly cared about the newspaper and its connection to the community. When I left, we (I still feel like a “we”) had become part of Warren Buffet’s empire, the third chain to own us.
The difference was obvious. To the person crunching numbers in some corporate headquarters, a newspaper is often just another small and insignificant piece in a real-life Monopoly game, no different from a car dealership or resort hotel or factory. If cutting costs there helps the bottom line (and, thus, the stock price), who cares if the product itself is diminished? Not every newspaper can be owned, like the Washington Post, by Jeff Bezos.
And yes, it’s true that small newspapers will never be quite the same again. That, however, is the way of the world — change is constant.
The thing is, the shift from print to on-line is actually a plus. Whereas the expenses involved in printing a 30,000-circulation paper and delivering it to thousands of doorsteps and mailboxes every day were daunting, the Internet takes all that away. You can still publish the news, sell ads, and perform all the other newspaper functions at a fraction of the previous cost. You can even do away with the actual newspaper building, because reporters can work remotely.
Even more importantly, however, each local newspaper has a product that no one else can offer. Neither the New York Times, CNN or Fox News covers what happens in Lynchburg, VA — certainly not the local government meetings, weddings, funerals, high school sports or the occasional murder. Even the Roanoke Times, another daily just 40 miles away, largely ignored Lynchburg.
After our newspaper added an online component, a survey was done to determine which stories were most frequently clicked upon, based on the teaser headlines. At first, it was somewhat demoralizing to find that the “click rates” for our lengthy feature pieces and insightful editorials were dwarfed by articles titled “Two injured in Rivermont Avenue wreck.”
Then it hit us: People were clicking on the wreck articles because they wanted to see if they knew any of the people who had been injured.
Nobody owns the news, any more than they can own the weather. It continues to happen, whether anyone reports on it or not. and people will always crave it.
Local newspapers have a unique product that can be sold en masse at minimal expense. This is not a recipe for failure.
Maybe community journalism needs to shake off its corporate overlords and return to its roots. The Commoner that you are reading right now is a good example of how it can be done.
At their best, newspapers serve as boulders of reason in a torrent of misinformation. That’s part of the code that we once operated by, even as TV news often veered into sensationalism.
I wrote a column for my newspaper, and so people would occasionally call me hoping that I would write a derogatory piece about someone they disliked or disagreed with.
“Before I do anything,” I would say, “I’ll need to call that person to get their side of it.”
That was bad enough for the caller, but they really hated it when I then told them I would have to use their name. Today, millions of anonymous, unproven accusations and slurs flood the Internet, evidentally beyond the reach of libel laws.
I think what you’ll see in the near future are local newspapers being reborn as independent entities, perhaps even staffed by part-time journalists.
That’s because we need them. Unchained.