For as long as I can remember, they’ve been telling me newspapers were in trouble. But of my former employers, only the small daily where I started my career in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, no longer exists.
The circulation was 6,000. I was the “full-time,” 30-hour-a-week sportswriter. That meant they could work you 38 and not pay benefits. If I didn’t live with my parents, I couldn’t have made a living. When it rained, water came pouring through the ceiling of the “sports annex” into an industrial-sized Rubbermaid next to my desk.
I loved it. So much so that I changed my college major from broadcast to print. Why? Because community journalism matters.
But this column isn’t about that newspaper.
It’s about where I’m at now, almost 30 years later: The Fauquier Times. And it’s about a daily that still holds an important place in my heart: The Mercury, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
The Mercury was facing the same difficulties facing every newspaper faced when I arrived in 1998: shrinking ad revenue, shrinking circulation, what to do with the internet. But good journalism was still happening. And boy, did we have fun. In many ways, I think it was the last of the good old days.
Three photographers, a half a dozen reporters, two copy editors, a five-person sports crew. Multiple editors. From 4 in the afternoon until midnight, it’s where the action was.
These were people who cared about the community they served. Working all hours. After deadline, going for burgers and beers together. We loved what we did, who we did it with and the community we were doing it for. I look back on those days and curse the foolishness of youth that led me to chase dreams elsewhere.
A handful of those good journalists remain, as recent coverage of the YMCA’s attempt to leave Pottstown proves. But as a friend who continues to fight the good fight assured me, I would have been axed years ago. You see, the newspaper’s parent company, Digital First Media, is owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has very different goals for its properties.
You might have heard of Alden and Digital First. They have been in the news lately:
• Niemanlab.org: “Newsonomics: Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism it might not want to stop anytime soon.”
• Bloomberg: “Imagine If Gordon Gekko Bought News Empires. The reality is even worse: This raider sinks decimated newsrooms’ revenue into bad investments.”
• Philadelphia Inquirer: “Philly’s Digital First papers face harsh cuts, potential ‘lights-out scenario’”
• Denver Post editorial: “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved”
• MPR News’ NewsCut: “Newspaper employees wonder who will cover their plight”
Digital First recently made news by purchasing the Boston Herald.
• Boston Business Journal: “Digital First lays off Boston Herald managers, workers”
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Alden has done something besides strike a blow to community journalism: They’ve profited from it. For years, we have heard journalism is not profitable. It seems we have been proven wrong.
Quoting the NiemanLab story:
“Today we can reveal some key financial numbers from the very private company that shows just how successful Alden and DFM have been at milking profit out of the newspapers it is slashing to the bone. DFM reported a 17-percent operating margin — well above those of its peers — in its 2017 fiscal year, along with profits of almost $160 million. That’s the fruit of the repeated cutbacks that have left its own shrinking newsrooms in a state of rebellion.”
News came Friday that The Mercury is being kicked out of its historic home. This isn’t a surprise; the building should probably be condemned. I understand parts of it have been left to rot to a point that it is uninhabitable. Workers have been told they can work remotely or at the centralized plant in Exton. Unfortunately, that’s 30 minutes away, not in Pottstown.
The newspaper is being physically removed from its community. Now, good reporters will still be present, but think about it for a minute. Think about access this community enjoys to its local newspaper. Think about stopping by to subscribe, pick up a copy, drop off a letter to the editor, plan an ad or talk to a reporter or editor. Imagine that gone.
The Fauquier Times offers something different than disinterested corporate entities or hedge funds: local ownership comprised of investors who want to be proud of their newspaper. Who thought so much of that cause, they went and bought it.
I saw a lot of promise in that. It’s what drew me here from a relatively stable job at Stars and Stripes. I saw possibilities for the future of community newspapers, and a model for how it could work that others could follow. I wanted to be a part of that.
It hasn’t been easy. There have been challenges along the way. But exciting things are happening. We’ve redesigned. Added section fronts. Expanded coverage. Branched out into new mediums. We are learning and we are growing. The possibilities are endless.
To me, community journalism is a sacred trust. We are uniquely positioned to tell the stories of this community in ways no other organization can. We believe in this community: its people, its businesses, its causes. That means sharing the good things that are happening, as well as serving as the community’s watchdog.
I’ve shown you how easily that trust can be betrayed. You and I each have an investment in this cause. By buying a newspaper in print or online, or subscribing, you invest in our future. And through our work and dedication, we invest in our community. It’s a symbiotic relationship. All of us. Together.
Chris Six is the Editor-in-Chief of the Times. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @christophersix1