Colleague and former journalistic rival Brenda Buchanan recently captured very well why everyone should care about the demise of a newspaper like Biddeford’s Journal-Tribune, which closed earlier this month after 135 years in business.
While it’s also the place I got my first full-time job after college, I’m not wallowing in nostalgia. I’d like to add my two cents to Brenda’s about how concerning it is that a vital cog in democracy is being eroded as newspapers shut down. It’s not the loss of the print and ink product — some accounts of newspapers shutting down get the delivery method confused with what it’s actually delivering.
Government and commerce need watchdogs — a voice that’s not controlled by the government, is independent and is guided by a code of ethics that include accuracy and critical thinking — to keep things in check.
That lofty thought may not stir you, but does getting hit in the wallet?
A study reported on by the Pacific Standard last year by Kriston Capps found that cities that lost a newspaper had an increase in government costs because there was no one there to hold them accountable.
Here’s an excerpt:
According to a new working paper, local news deserts lose out financially too. Cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals, say researchers who tracked the decline of local news outlets between 1996 and 2015.
Disruptions in local news coverage are soon followed by higher long-term borrowing costs for cities. Costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after the closure of a local newspaper—a finding that can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions, the authors say. Those civic watchdogs make a difference to the bottom line.
If you live in a town the size of mine, like many in Maine do, you may think “No big deal. My town isn’t doing bond issues or other big-ticket items.” But the little things newspapers used to report on — RFPs for plowing or other town services, for instance — are just as vital, if not moreso.
Small town budgets are tighter, the money’s harder to come by, no one wants taxes to go up, and when town meeting time, comes, it’s generally the library or school that suffer. No one knows about the higher-than-it-should’ve-been contract that may have gone to someone’s cousin or buddy, because no one reported on it. Even towns that are ostensibly covered by newspapers, staffing cuts not only to reporters, but editors who assign and develop stories, means there’s less of an eye on covering day-to-day news.
The erosion of local coverage isn’t just newspaper owners’ fault. It’s allowed to happen by the huge majority of people who feel like they’re already well-informed because they’re inundated with information on TV and their devices. Local government is so, well, boring, right? And inconsequential. Most people don’t know or seem to care much about what’s going on in their own community.
Harsh assessment? Maybe, but true. One telling thing in a recent Boston Globe article about the Biddeford Journal-Tribune is that the local offcials who lamented the fact it was closing didn’t subscribe to the paper.
While some may argue that it’s always been the way, you may forget that when you got a local newspaper, you’d leaf through it and read things you wouldn’t necessarily search out. One image that’s traveled with me through my career is arriving home for lunch around the time the afternoon paper I worked for in Haverill, Mass. was delivered (another newspaper that no longer exists). I felt pride, as well as satisfaction, that people were sitting on the front steps of the triple-deckers in my neighborhood reading the paper as they enjoyed the afternoon sun with their neighbors.
That’s not just a quaint snapshot of the past — it was evidence to me that regular people in the community cared enough to pick up the paper and read it. It made an impression that I didn’t forget. Simple, obvious — and no longer the norm.
The loss of basic curiousity and the instinct to know what your local commuity is up to, the fact that people don’t understand — or maybe choose not to care about — how lack of local oversight affects their lives (and their wallets) is more disturbing to me that the demise of the ink and paper delivery system that supported my family for three generations.
The fact that independent sources of providing local news are being silenced goes farther than individuals simply not being informed about things that affect their lives. It’s also about the control of that information.
A 2017 documentary “Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press,” shows disturbingly how those with a lot of money can shut down news sources, silencing the watchdogs. Keeping those informatoin channels isn’t just an issue on the local level, but the shutdown of quality journalism has an impact on the bigger picture information you consume.
Consumers of news, as well as those who keep it afloat financially (advertisers), and those who produce it, have to stop thinking of news in terms of print vs. digital.
It’s time to start thinking about quality content and how to produce it, rather than the single-mided focus on delivery methods of the past decade.
I know delivering journalism costs money and money rules the bottom line. That’s always been true.
I’m a third-generation journalist, grew up around journalists. Journalists sitting around our house having impassioned discussions about journalism were as normal in my childhood as discussions about the NFL or why had the best lawn in the neighborhood might’ve been in other homes. I’ve been in the business for nearly four decades. That doesn’t make me some old mildeweed geezer out of touch with today’s journalism, by the way. Rather, it gives me a context for understanding why journalism matters as much today as it did when I first worked at the Journal-Tribune and pounded out stories on an IBM Selectric.
I also know this, because I’ve seen it my entire life (though not often enough): When those in a position to make decisions understand journalism, why it exists, and care about quality journalism, quality journalism will follow.
Two of my former New Hampshire colleagues are great examples. Carol Robidoux, in Manchester, N.H., created Manchester Ink Link, which covers mostly city goings-on. Nancy West created InDepthNH, which covers the state. Both are individuals, good, experienced journalists who see a need and are attempting to fill a gap. They operate on a shoestring and good wishes, yet put out quality products. Just imagine what someone with money behind them could do.
I read an article today about how the University of Michigan’s student paper, The Michigan Daily because Ann Arbor — a city larger than Portland, Maine, or Manchester, N.H., — no longer has a daily newspaper. A grant that allows the newspaper to operate means there are plenty of college kids covering city boards, car accidents, and more five days a week. Lucky Ann Arbor. A lot of cities aren’t so lucky.
We’re dealing with a lot of issues these days — I won’t reel them all off, you’ve heard enough about them. The bottom line is that to solve those issues, there has to be a foundation of knowledge that starts at home.
On a lighter note: A bunch of us Maine Crime Writers and some friends will be at Fore River Brewing in South Portland Sunday, Oct. 27, giving brief readings from our books. Maybe I’ll read something about journalism. But there’ll be free pizza, too, so don’t let that stop you. For more info, see below. There’s also a Facebook page.