A particularly sad story came out of York County this week. The Journal Tribune will publish its last edition on October 12, putting an end to 135 years of local newsgathering in Biddeford, Saco and surrounding towns.
As soon as I heard the news the chorus to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi ran through my head, especially that insightful line about not missing something valuable until it’s gone.
Joni wrote that song to protest rampant overdevelopment, but her point is equally applicable to the loss of local journalism. The JT was the competition during my six-year stint as a reporter at the weekly York County Coast Star in Kennebunk. Its presses ran every day and ours only once a week, so my job required me to dig deeper into the stories their reporters (including our own Maureen Milliken) didn’t have time to dissect with a fine scalpel. I loved to scoop them, hated being scooped.
Despite the fact the JT reporters’ stories hit the streets every afternoon and mine were published only on Wednesdays, our job description was the same—to stick our noses into everything.
The bidding process for a lucrative snowplowing contract. The town councilor hushing up the fact her teenage son was driving the truck that carved donuts in the athletic field turf in the middle of the night. The suspicious-looking 55-gallon drums buried at the back corner of the landfill. Having multiple reporters on same beat meant damn few important stories slid between the cracks.
It surprised exactly none of my friends and relations that my Joe Gale series has newspaper reporters–Joe himself and his mentor Paulie Finnegan–as its heroes. Not because I saw myself as heroic, but because of the indelible mark it left upon me to have worked in what I consider such an admirable profession. I’m sure the same is true for my reporter-turned-crime-writer colleagues Maureen Milliken and Gerry Boyle, creators of Bernie O’Dea and Jack McMorrow, respectively.
To my knowledge none of us ever faced life-threatening situations covering crime and the courts, but we made sure we were visible in our communities so people would know who to call if they were mad about something, or thought an issue deserved a public airing. We listened to everyone’s opinions and tried to sort self-interest from public interest. We gave up our March Saturdays to attend annual town meetings and sat through twice-a-month planning board sessions that sometimes lasted until midnight. We were paid a pittance but that mattered less than our shared belief that local journalism was an essential force for good.
I will never stop believing that.
Every local newspaper that shuts its doors impoverishes the communities it covered. With the JT out of business, stories that should be illuminated will go uncovered. Things will happen that shouldn’t happen, and things that should will not, because an absolutely critical aspect of York County’s communications infrastructure has gone dark.
Like Joni says, we often don’t know what we have until it’s gone.