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Local journalism used to be such a positive force in communities — and now it is lost

"Seventy million people live in areas without local journalism"

As a youngster in the 1950s and 60s, I was spoiled in a way that you could not see on “Leave it to Beaver.”

Our home contained a newspaper in the house every day, a weekly 52 times a year, and two Sunday papers every week. Much of my interest in the world around me came from that, but in addition, my interest of what was transpiring in our local communities became paramount.

Later, as a public official in a small town, I realized how important local journalism was in conveying the importance of what we were doing to improve the community. When our water system was in dire need of repairs, we could go to the two public newspapers in the area, to the weekly newspaper, and to the two local television stations that covered news in the area. The local journalists could also hold our feet to the fire if we ventured away from the straight and beaten ethical path.

As an educator, I realized the significance of young people knowing what is taking place in the communities.

And then later as a journalist, I fully comprehended the importance of covering local stories that would be lost in the miasma of the national and statewide news.

Now, so much of that is lost.

Two newspapers closing a week

Why are newspapers and other local journalism leaving the market? That is complicated, exacerbated by the free news of the internet that is simply not very effective. Facebook and Twitter have no ethical standards, yet so many people read what is on those sites and believe them — when half of what is there is produced by trolls and journalistic deviates.

I started blogging and realize that the most popular stories that I write are those with a local slant to my home area. Much of that is because so little news is now covered in these areas.

Northwestern University’s school of journalism pointed out the societal problem that this is causing in America,

The United States continues to lose newspapers at a rate of two per week, further dividing the nation into wealthier, faster growing communities with access to local news, and struggling areas without.

That is the key takeaway in an ongoing report on the state of local news from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Between the pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022, more than 360 newspapers closed, the report by Medill’s Local News Initiative found. Since 2005, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025.

Erin Karter, “As newspapers close, struggling communities are hit hardest by

the decline in local journalism,” Northwestern Now, June 29, 2022

What does this mean for the education of our youth?

The value of a local daily newspaper is they combined national, international, state, and local stories in a unique way. They provided a venue for so many people since at one time, most families tried to read the newspaper to learn about what was happening in the world, in the country, in the state, and in the local areas.

Now, that local slant is disappearing. In my earliest years in education, I taught both English and American history. In the history realm, we covered current events, and we had a college bowl format, questions to give the students to compete with their knowledge of current events.

This was mostly national and sometimes state, but it encouraged the students to learn what was taking place in their communities.

Now, they must rely on the 24-hour news networks, which quite frankly, do a terrible job from a journalistic perspective. When I taught history, I tried to do it from a non-partisan slant. Students should make their own decisions based on their reading of what is taking place in their world.

“News deserts”

The Northwestern analysis points out that when communities lost their journalism, they have nowhere to go to learn,

Most of the communities that have lost newspapers do not get a print or digital replacement, leaving 70 million residents — or a fifth of the country’s population — either living in an area with no local news organizations, or one at risk, with only one local news outlet and very limited access to critical news and information that can inform their everyday decisions and sustain grassroots democracy. About 7 percent of the nation’s counties, or 211, now have no local newspaper.

“This is a crisis for our democracy and our society, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Medill and the principal author of the report. “Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain print or digital news organizations.”

Recent research shows that, in communities without a strong print or digital news organization, voter participation declines and corruption increases, Abernathy said, contributing to the spread of misinformation, political polarization and reduced trust in media.

Erin Karter, Northwestern Now, June 29, 2022

Losing two newspapers a week

Some of the local problems can be traced to the ascension of the national paper called USA Today. At one time, most hotels and motels would provide a free copy of that newspaper to guests, but it did not provide the local angle as well as the entrenched ones.

Then, with the rise of internet “news,” local papers started closing in the early years of the 21st Century. While losing two papers a week is not good news, maybe it is not as bad as anticipated,

The pandemic has been bad for the country’s local newspapers. But maybe not as bad as some people have feared.

Over 360 newspapers in the United States have gone out of business since just before the start of the pandemic, according to a new report from Northwestern University’s journalism school.

That same pace — about two closures per week — was occurring before the pandemic. Many newspaper analysts had thought that the economic conditions created by the coronavirus, especially a decline in advertising, would cause the rate to increase considerably.

“The good news is there were a lot of fears as the pandemic set in and we had a very severe economic constriction that it was going to be kind of the death knell for many newspapers,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, the author of the report and a visiting professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “The good news is it didn’t occur. The bad news is, or the concerning news is, we are continuing to lose newspapers at the same rate we’ve been losing them since 2005.”

… Overall, 2,500 newspapers in the United States — a quarter of them — have closed since 2005. The country is set up to lose one-third of its newspapers by 2025. And in many places, the surviving local media outlets have made major cuts to staff and circulation.

Isabella Simonetti, “Over 360 newspapers have closed since just before the

start of the pandemic,” New York Times, June 29, 2022

Some newspapers have themselves to blame

The daily newspaper that I read in my youth and later wrote for as a free-lance writer, is struggling, but I trace its problems back to the hiring of an editor who claimed to want to focus on local news — but who actually focused only on the negative.

Bringing in an editor who had worked for the New York Post was a terrible idea for that paper and proved to denigrate the local news because it worried about style more than substance. Having a negative headline about the local chief of police and chasing him down incessantly was not local news, and the negativism damaged that paper tremendously.

In addition, he eliminated one of the most popular parts of the paper, one called “Neighbors.”

That section of the paper focused on the accomplishments of local people, from high school athletes to those who volunteered in their communities and churches and those who made a difference in the communities.

So, the first victim of this scoundrel was that weekly segment of the paper. Having a guy from the New York Post meant that he had no idea of the value of balancing hard-hitting journalism with positive accomplishments of his community.

The Chamber of Commerce rebelled against this negativism, but they were also wrong. Hard-hitting journalism is a bedrock of the local papers, and they wanted simply fluff pieces.

Add in the move to internet news, and papers like the are struggling. That is unfortunate since holding local politicians accountable is vital part of local journalism.

This is unfortunate, but it is likely to continue because the advertising dollars of the old newspapers have been gobbled up by Google and and other national leeches.

And society is the loser.

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