When I wandered into the newspaper business in 1972, I was a stranger in a strange land. What Manuel said to Mr. Fawlty, I might have said: “I know nothing. I know nothing.” But later, as Manuel told his deranged boss, I might have added, “I learn, I learn.”
Since then, what I have learned about small community newspapers is entirely disheartening.
America lost a quarter of its journalists from 2008 to 2018, the vast majority of them covering local issues, University of North Carolina professor Penny Muse Abernathy told writer Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post, in a story published in December last year. Ms. Abernathy described the state of the art of local journalism for the year just ended, calculating that newsrooms lost at least 3,800 jobs, a gruesome toll, but that’s just the latest bad news. She told the Post that the country has lost 2,100 newspapers since 2004, 70 of them dailies.
Mr. O’Connell writes that she calls “about 1,000 surviving titles as ‘ghost papers,’ because of their painfully thin staffs and reporting. She has dubbed places with few or no reporters as ‘news deserts.’ ‘There is a dearth of local news at all levels,’ she said.”
At the Vineyard Gazette, way back when, the first thing I learned was that newspapering in a small community was fun, and also challenging, though even the challenging parts were fun. Fun because every member of the community was a story, not just the town or county officials, and certainly not the state or, God forbid, federal pols, who only rarely could be distinguished from their public postures, except perhaps in their obituaries.
Of course, Democrat-Republican partisan warfare was muted and perhaps entirely inconsequential in those halcyon days. So selectman meetings, police and court news were fun too. Fun to research, to write, and to read. We smile, you smile, no one is wounded, or at least not terribly, and many are pleased, their profiles raised, and sometimes enhanced.
Perhaps you found yourself surprised to learn that your neighbor was a highly regarded nuclear physicist, or you howled at the story about the rampant turkey gunned down by a town police officer. That one had a smile or two in it and was only mildly wounding to the officers whom the rampaging bird had attacked. No humans were harmed, except perhaps emotionally. It was the sort of story that makes the lives of small town reporters and editors as fun as they from time to time can be.
But, the smiles don’t predominate in community news coverage. Leaving aside the plays, movies, books, music, dance, good deeds, births, anniversaries, sports, club activities, fundraisers, and parades that formed the weekly diet, the news core of a weekly community paper is heavy with zoning/planning issues, budgets, taxes, school committee activities, law enforcement, court news, auto accidents, boating accidents, land disputes, economic development, conservation, and the like.
A good deal of this core stuff was distressing or exasperating, and some of it was heartbreaking, especially when then phone rang with an embarrassed or abused neighbor or friend, whose life has been tilted by finding himself the topic of general conversation in town. What made these stories rewarding was that the people written about were neighbors. One learned that each mattered, whatever side of the issue he supported.
The reward of the weekly community news business, particularly in a smallish setting, was that one got to follow the lives of neighbors, from birth announcement to obituary, from a newcomer’s arrival to her departure, whether for this side or the other. The weekly paper’s job was to describe as many of these human trajectories as it could, as these neighborly characters appeared and receded in the rich variety of their community roles over the years, and to do it without sneering at them, without deprecating them, without calling them names, wishing them dead, or hating them. Sadly, horrifyingly, nationally, that’s changed.
There are several myths about newspapers. One is that newspapers can only report what official sources, such as the courts, the police, the FCC, the White House, the EPA, the selectmen, or you name it, permit them to report. Another is that what newsmakers claim is private is off-limits. Oh, and that news reporters worth the name are doing a journalist’s job, getting the news, by asking some bigwig a question in a televised press conference. Rather, it’s pretend journalism.
Thank the Founding Fathers, news gathering – the press – is unregulated. Newspapers, unlike broadcast television or radio, are private enterprises, free to publish what they choose, as they choose, when they choose, whether it’s official or not. Consequently, there are all sorts of newspapers, some focused on international news, some on community and commercial boosterism, some on small town myth-making, some on the sad, sordid, and self-promotional antics of the celebs, or on the 90-year-old who gave birth to the Mr. Bean look-alike, or, well, you name it. Choose your poison.
Nor is it true in newspapering that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, obliging the reporter to add the word alleged at least twice in every sentence. It’s true in the law, and hooray for that, but it’s not true in journalism. The research and the story’s quality is the rule newspaper people should obey. Of course, make a mistake, publish the story without getting the story, risk a libel suit. Astonishingly also, there’s the myth that holds that some stories are so embarrassing or humiliating or ghastly that they ought to be kept secret by the newspaper, by those involved in the story, and by and from the community as a whole. None of this is true. It’s a choice for the reporter and his editor. The guiding spirit is, Find Stuff Out, Then Publish it.
Along with this freedom comes associated risk and a requirement for care and common sense. Publish stuff that is not true, or so boosterish or pandering, or enough other stuff that readers find repugnant or merely trivial, and poof, you’re out of business, or maybe in court. But, the general rule is that when community newspapers publish stories that are sufficiently interesting, that obviously have the interests of the community of readers at heart, and that alert readers to matters that need attention, congratulation, or correction, such newspapers endure.
But the tide is running briskly, mortally, Woods Hole Passage-like, against news reporting and publishing today and has done so for decades. Social media has gutted journalism, coarsened, devalued, and discredited it, so that, with few exceptions, information online is indifferently researched, unedited, cocksure opinion, unexamined by a traditional editorial process. And although all of these online social media creatures are publishers, they take no responsibility for what they publish. After all, they are merely reporting or hosting what they’ve heard, what someone said, what groundless conceit has struck the poster today.
Worst of all, as the small, locally focused newspapers fall away, the profoundly personal linkage between journalists and their neighbors, who are also their readers, is lost. And finally, the nation, not the neighborhood, becomes the centerpiece of the life we live.