Aside from the story of blizzards with drifting snow that were so high he had to climb out a second-floor window to get to school, my dad shared about growing up in Canada that he spent every morning in a busy corner of St. John, New Brunswick, since he was six.
He vowed that he got up at five every day to fetch his bundle of The Telegraph-Journal and haul it downtown where businessmen and traders might be tempted to save a few pennies on the day’s news. Still “hot off the press” the papers stained his hands with black ink that had to be wiped off before the nuns of St. Malachy saw it.
Daddy has been in the newspapers for most of his professional life, always on business. He met my mother while they were working for the same newspaper in White Plains, NY. After they got married in 1933 during the Great Depression, his career had ups and downs, but he always found a job in the industry he loved.
During World War II, a newspaper drew him to New Jersey, much to my mother’s chagrin. It was a lucrative move, and the Alexander family grew from three to five children in the Garden State. When the Gannett chain bought the Perth Amboy Evening News, my father retired but never lost his news habits. During the week we were a family with two newspapers, but on Sunday we hit the jackpot with a journalistic trifecta: New York Times, Daily News and Journal-American.
When my father first got the news sickness, there were more than twenty-two hundred daily newspapers in this country, twenty-nine of them in New York City alone. Radio hit the arena in the 1920s, and then television in the late 1940s and 1950s. Newspapers adjusted their coverage and adjusted it to increase circulation, but nothing new came up until 1982 when Gannett founded USA Today. Since then, mergers and acquisitions have flourished in the industry while the number of actual news providers has declined.
In the 1980s, 90s, and into the new millennium, digital technology and social media began to flex their muscles. The 24-hour news cycle arrived. Audience demands changed as online news sources proliferated and “entertainment” became a factor in attracting audiences. The Courier-Journal, once the state newspaper, closed its regional offices and voted back to focus on Louisville, Southern Indiana. News organizations of all sizes struggled to stay afloat as they searched for viable business models.
Today, in small towns like Murray, newspapers are David with no stones to throw at the Goliaths, buy up local newspapers, and solidify reporting. In our own region, a private media group controls the NBC subsidiary as well as daily and weekly newspapers in Paducah, Hopkinsville, Madisonville, Owensboro, Mayfield, Leitchfield, Russellville, Benton, Cadiz, Eddyville, Dawson Springs, Princeton and Providence.
Today the trend continues. According to the Pew Research Center, the estimated circulation of US daily newspapers (print and digital combined) was 24.3 million on weekdays and 25.8 million on Sundays. Each number was down 6% year over year. Digital circulation is increasing, but advertising and distribution revenues in the industry are declining and newsroom employment is falling across the country.
How does this affect local coverage?
It’s not a pretty picture.
Local government efficiency deteriorates when newspapers close, according to a recent study in the Journal of Financial Economics. The wages of city and county workers increase compared to those of the local private sector, resulting in a 1.3% increase in the state wage share compared to other county workers.
The middle district examined the total wage increases of $ 1.4 million and hired an average of four additional government employees for every 1,000 residents.
The burden on taxpayers increased accordingly. Each taxpayer paid an average of $ 85 more a year. That may not sound like a lot, but it was 0.25% of median wages in the counties we studied – $ 33,700.
Another dire result of the lower local coverage is civic engagement stalling, making it easier for politicians to hire more friends, pay them more and raise taxes. The study also found that the interest rates that cities and counties pay on their debts rose as local newspapers died. If public finances are not controlled locally, debt costs more because the public has less information about the risk that governments are taking if they take on more debt.
Unless there is a natural disaster, mass murder or sex scandal, the national media ignores the local news. Investigative reporting at the local level is difficult with reduced staff, and the increasing desperation to attract and retain advertisers can lead to editorial content being skewed.
This week marks the National Newspaper Week. If you think your newspaper is not doing its job, tell them. Write letters, speak out. Strong local journalism creates social cohesion, promotes political participation and improves the efficiency and decision-making of local and state governments. Local news organizations that will survive the change are led by creative, disciplined professionals who invest long-term to meet the information needs of their communities.
When you’re happy with your paper, send a thank you to the editor, editor, reporter, and columnist. Write a letter to the editor on a local topic that is important to you. Buy a subscription to show your community pride. Invite the editor or publisher to speak about Brown Bag Lunch at your service club.
“Community Forum” is the theme of this year’s National Newspaper Week, emphasizing the importance of local journalism and its crucial role for democracy. How is your newspaper doing? What are you doing to make it better