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Memory is a funny thing. As I get older, I become more accustomed to the idea that our memories are just a compilation of key moments. I may have spent 13 years in one place, but my memory of that time is distilled down to an assortment of memorable moments over the course of those years.
One such memory that stands out in my mind is from the summer of 1992. I’m leaning up against the backstop at a baseball field at Kerr Park in Downingtown, Pa., poised with my notebook and tape recorder ready to interview players and coaches post-game, when a little kid says to his mom, “There’s that man from the last game!”
I think it always stuck in my mind because it may have been the first time anyone referred to me as a man. In my mind, I was some dopey kid working the summer away between his sophomore and junior years of college.
It was my second year working in a two-man sports department at a small daily based out of Coatesville. I took the job because it was the closest I could get at the time to covering sports in a professional capacity.
I had a sink-or-swim moment on my second day — after a particularly putrid story, the sports editor called me and asked, “can you do this job?” It was just the kick in the keister I needed. I buckled down from that moment on and I was hooked. My goal had always been to become a sportscaster, but by the end of that first summer, I changed my major to print.
That newspaper is long gone, but I suppose that memory has been on my mind lately because of stories tied to two other newspapers where I spent a sizable portion of my career.
The first ran on the front page of The New York Times: The Last Reporter in Town Had One Big Question for His Rich Boss. The sub-hed says it all: His newspaper has withered under a hedge fund. His industry was in turmoil even before a pandemic. But Evan Brandt won’t stop chronicling his town.
Evan and I were colleagues when I worked at The Mercury in the late 1990s and remain friends to this day. Back then it was a bustling operation and I have many fond memories of working in that newsroom. I won’t give all of Dan Barry’s work away for free, because he is an amazing writer who deserves to be read (also, shout-out to Haruka Sakaguchi for her top-notch photography), but suffice to say that newsroom no longer exists in a physical sense.
Evan works out of his attic office now, a long three stories up his old Pottstown home — and I should know — I helped move filing cabinets and boxes of paper up to that office all those years ago. If you want to understand what is happening at local newspapers today, if you feel your local paper is not up to the standards you might remember, read this story, because it is happening all over the country.
Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, is the author of The Expanding News Desert, produced by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It notes that 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies or non-dailies have disappeared in the U.S. since 2004.
The result: more than 200 of the nation's 3,143 counties and equivalents have no newspaper or alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues. Half of those have only one newspaper, typically a weekly. Those places are considered “news deserts.”
Coronavirus economics have exacerbated the situation. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit journalism school and research organization, keeps a running tally of the newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures caused by the coronavirus.
The second story on my radar is the proposal by the Department of Defense to cut all funding to Stars and Stripes, the newspaper that provides independent news and information — both from home and about the military — to the U.S. military community. This includes servicemembers, contractors, DoD civilians, veterans and families.
What makes Stars and Stripes unique among DoD news outlets is its editorial independence is guaranteed by the First Amendment, a relationship that has been backed by Congress and the courts on several occasions.
DoD claims it wants to reinvest its $15.5 million per year into “functions it considers more critical to warfighting,” according to Marine Lt. Col. Chris Logan as quoted in a report in Stripes on the decision. Stripes’ Ombudsman Ernie Gates said that would be “a fatal cut.”
Considering the DoD’s $705 billion budget, I tend to agree with Stripes editorial director Terry Leonard, who was quoted by The Washington Post as calling Stripes’ funding “decimal dust.”
The same article quoted the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, Elaine McCusker, as saying “that newspaper is probably not the best way that we communicate any longer.”
While trends do point to the decline of newspapers, that ignores some key points:
It is part of Stripes’ role to independently analyze that message, and it is no surprise that an Administration that seems to view that any media funded by the government should be “on message” (see Voice of America) finds itself at odds with that mission.
Objective reporting on the military is certainly a big part of Stripes’ mission, but it is also to do community journalism: sports, schools, life. That’s a news desert with a global reach.
The point of all this isn’t an “oh, woe is me.” I’ve been shouting from the mountaintops for years to anyone who would listen about what is happening in this industry. That bird has flown.
But I firmly believe nature abhors a vacuum. Thinking back to my early days covering local sports, social media can’t replace the thrill of seeing your kid’s picture in the paper, or their name mentioned for sparking a rally in an important game.
People still want to know what’s happening around town this weekend. They want to hear the stories about neighbors doing good for the community, or those in need. They still want someone to tell break down what happened at the school board or county commissioners meeting they can’t attend because they work or have to run the kids to a concert or practice.
And communities will continue to rely on the watchdog role local journalists play in ensuring their elected officials aren’t lining their pockets with taxpayer money.
The Washington Post has a slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Whatever you may think of the Post, the statement is true. Statistics show in the news deserts the price of governance inevitably increases. Residents go uniformed. Community is lost.
Something must fill that space. Finding a business model that works — that makes up for the shortfalls from the loss of advertising, and particularly classifieds — is the challenge.
So, my plea, is when the opportunity arises to support community journalism, whatever form it may take in the future, support it. Advertise. Invest. Subscribe. Whatever it takes. If you are in a position to create a workable platform, do so.
In the end, we all benefit.
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