Skip to content

The Case for Community Newspapers

What is the value of local news to you?

How do you stay informed about what’s happening in the world? How do you stay informed about what’s going on in your community? Where do you get your news these days?

These are critical questions I’m passionate about pursuing, because, as we all know, the state of news in our country is changing dramatically. Strong labels come with just about every national news source – CNN, FOX, NBC, MSNBC. And when was the last time you heard someone praise their local newspaper?

News on the national front is more polarized than ever. News on the local front is disappearing. That, to me, is scary.

In a 2019 article, the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018. Collectively, the closures left 200 counties without newspapers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that newspaper jobs declined by 60 percent between 1990 and 2016. Newsroom employees – the people who actually report the news – declined by 45 percent between 2008 and 2017, a Pew study found. Yet another Pew study found that 71% of Americans believed local news outlets were doing well financially, though only 14% actually paid for local news.

These stark numbers beg the question: What value does our society place on local news?

When a literary magazine I love announced it was seeking essays on hometown newspapers for a new anthology entitled INK, I shoved everything on my to-do list aside and started writing. The topic, to me, was too important to ignore. My relationship with community journalism started when I was a freshman in high school, because the editor of my hometown newspaper – The Pinedale Roundup – gave me a chance.

The Pinedale Roundup is a 115-year-old community icon for Pinedale, WY, and Sublette County, once the least populated county in the state. When John F. Patterson was doggedly trying to establish a town on the banks of Pine Creek in southwest Wyoming’s high and rugged terrain, he envisioned a newspaper as a critical component to defining a town. A newspaper could connect people who were trying to make a go at life in this hardscrabble place. It could also showcase the land and its opportunities for citizens and newcomers to make it their home.

A glance through the early issues is a wild ride of entertainment. As I report in my forthcoming essay for INK:

The news was divided by area: Merna (“Supt. Anderson of the Forest Reserves has been seen in these parts lately”); Big Piney (”All are pleased with the abundant hay crop this year”); Valley Roundup (”P.V. Sommers passed thru [sic] Pinedale recently en route to Pacific Spring, where he expects to recover some of the horses stolen from his camp near the Black Butte during July … Mr. Fred S. Boyce, who has been on the sick list for some time the past summer is again on duty, rather thin and pale but still in the ring”). In the Cora section, Brandon (the Roundup’s first editor) mused: “A friend of mine asked me the other day the name of the joint on the left hindleg of a cat, the joint the cat usually sits on. I was unable to reply. Will some kind reader inform the editor so I may know in the future.”

The news wasn’t earth-shattering. It wasn’t sensational. It was simple, unfussy and conversational. But it served a definite purpose: to connect people with one another, and to connect people with the place they called home.

Since then, the flavor of community news has evolved dramatically, not only in focus of what constitutes news, but also the way people consume news. The digital landscape, accented by noisy social media platforms, has hugely influenced the way people get their news. It has also upended advertisers’ approaches to reach consumers. Advertisers want to be where their consumers are. If their consumers’ eyes are not on the local newspaper, big advertising dollars won’t be, either.

These colossal changes, as most of us know, have also wildly affected newsrooms across the country. One example of many is the Omaha World-Herald, which has let go of one-third of its newspaper staff within the past two years. MarketWatch columnist Brett Arends writes:

Gutting papers and laying off reporters is a lot easier these days. Not just because of the economy, but also because of a very successful 50-year cultural campaign against “the media,” who are portrayed as evil “elitists” (and the enemy, of course, of the American people).

As the local news landscape shrinks, Americans are provided with less and less information about what’s happening close to them, reports the Wall Street Journal. Local newspapers are vanishing in part because they struggle to find sustainable ways to deliver quality news to their readerships while still making enough money to pay their staff and cover overhead costs. Turnover is as common as cracks in a sidewalk. The reporters who fill the vacancies often have no personal connection to the people or places on which they are reporting. They are willing to work for wages that hardly rival an entry-level position. Readers’ faith in the stories declines, because the stories lack quality, depth, solid reporting. The greater public loses trust in the fickle voice of its community.

So what happens to a community when its newspaper loses credibility, respect, community backing? Where is the pulse of a town if not in stories that are communicated thoroughly to the wider public?

As I worked on my essay about my own 115-year-old hometown newspaper (which, by the way, still comes out weekly but at half the size as it was in its heyday and with enough punctuation and grammatical errors to make Strunk and White turn green), a looming question nagged at me:

What is news?

A second question piggybacked it:

What is the purpose of a newspaper?

Is the answer different today than it was back in 1904, or 1940?

One purpose of a newspaper is to ask – then answer – questions. A good reporter is not afraid to ask questions. She starts with the questions everyone is asking. But then, she goes deeper. She asks more questions, and she picks up answers like breadcrumbs, following a trail to the story beneath the surface.

In an interview with Lapham’s Quarterly Review, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, acknowledged that advertising and news are floating apart. “If that’s true, and if society still needs anchor news and people who can say, ‘That’s true,’ ‘That’s not true,’ then we have to think about news as a public service like an ambulance service or a police service. And how we answer is question we ought to start discussing.”

Indeed, Arthur Miller, the American playwright and essayist of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible fame, defined a newspaper this way: “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”

Drill that down to the local level, and you get something like this: “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a community talking to itself.”

But what are conversations – good, thorough, responsibly researched conversations – worth to you, reader?

What conversations is your community engaged in? What are you, as a local citizen, curious about? As a member of a specific community, what do you need to know?

The broader question remains for all of us, writes Brett Arends: If local reporters don’t cover the local courts, and City Hall, and zoning board meetings, and the goings-on of the local chamber of commerce, who will?

It’s time we start thinking about local news as a civic need. Places and people will continue to change, and history will continue its slow and steady march, regardless of whether people write about it. But stories are the lifeblood of any community. Without stories, we die.

The future of local news is hanging in the balance. A future without newspapers, says Nicco Mele of the Shorenstein Center, is “actually a crisis for democracy.”

How does a community talk to itself? What is the value of one community’s heartbeat?

Let’s start talking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *