Guest columnist Tom Gardner: Local newspapers in the ‘twilight zone’ — will they last?

Published: 8/14/2019 8:00:18 PM

Did you hear about the convicted extortionist who was elected to the Northampton City Council? Wish you had known? Or what about the flat-earther elected to the Amherst School Committee? No?

Well, surely you knew about the permit granted to the “Toxic Sludge is Good For You” hazardous waste company to establish a dump near a Hadley elementary school?

Didn’t know? Well, don’t worry, none of that happened. But you might want to worry about what could happen without you knowing if there were no local news media to tell you. What if our local news media disappeared, leaving us in a twilight zone of either no information or misinformation?

I recently saw a protest sign that said, “First, they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.” The news media are our eyes and ears to what is happening in our community. We take for granted that our local newspaper will always be there, on one media platform or another.

But, as Scott Merzbach’s front-page story in the Gazette on July 30 warns us, that is not a safe assumption. A 40 percent reduction in newsroom staffs over the past 15 years, with the loss of some 2,100 local newspapers in that period, has left many Americans in a “news desert,” devoid of local news or seeing drastically reduced coverage.

Sure, they can get the national news online or on television. But where will they learn what is happening in their community?

A University of North Carolina report cited in the article is a well-documented account of the struggle for survival of local news media outlets. On Aug. 4, the New York Times ran a special supplement on the decline of local media, drawing heavily on that report, and I drew on it as well when I testified recently at a state legislative hearing on the bill that Merzbach mentions in his article.

The bill (S.80/H.181), sponsored by Sen. Brendon Crighton and Rep. Lori Ehrlich, would establish a commission to study and make recommendations concerning challenges to local news media.

The trends are disturbing. The loss of local journalism is a real crisis for our democracy. Many of us are fixated on national and international news. But people exercise the greatest influence on decisions that impact their lives in their local communities.

Whether an issue involves town council, school committee, zoning board, or any local or state government agency, citizens usually learn about issues from their local media. Or they will voice concerns through the local press.

In Amherst, for instance, young people alarmed about buses pumping more carbon dioxide into the air by running their engines at idle, or concerned about the schools contracting for prison labor, learned the connections between civic action and the press in making change.

Besides being a forum for civic engagement, our local press is also the repository of our local history. When historians research a community’s history, they most often pore through the archives of local newspapers. If that press archive doesn’t exist, how do we learn our local history?

We are fortunate in this area to be served by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, which is not only the commonwealth’s oldest newspaper, founded in 1786, but has also won numerous awards as one of the best. It is successful because it invests in solid journalism.

All local newspapers face the challenges of the digital age in the loss of subscribers and advertisers. But owners’ responses to those challenges vary greatly. Our local paper, part of a family-owned enterprise, values journalism as an essential element of a democratic society.

This commitment, as well as what I would argue is smart business sense, leads management to say, “We have to work harder to expand local coverage, so people remain invested in their local media and community.”

But that is often not the response of the media conglomerates that are gobbling up local media operations, shutting down many, cutting news staffs and providing less local coverage. The pattern is that a struggling, family-owned paper is bought by a conglomerate like GateHouse (which is owned by hedge fund Fortress Investment, which is, in turn, owned by a Japanese telecommunications company, Softbank).

Within months, the newsroom staff is often reduced by half and circulation drops. In many cases, the local papers are then closed or consolidated with others in the same area, and local coverage suffers. GateHouse is now poised to buy the second largest newspaper chain in the country, Gannett. So, we can expect the pattern to continue.

Large media companies have, so far, written their own rules. They engineered a major rewrite of broadcast media law with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which removed or reduced limits on the concentration of ownership in broadcast media, leaving us half a dozen companies that control most of what we see and hear. Now the concentration trend is devouring local newspapers.

What can we do? Read the UNC report at Subscribe to your local paper and their online service. Let your state legislators know you support S.80/H.181. Urge federal elected officials and regulators to enforce anti-trust provisions against media ownership concentration.

Pay attention. Democracy can’t function in the dark. Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian is quoted in the movie, “The Post,” saying, “If we don’t tell them, who will?” in relation to the Pentagon Papers. By the same token, if we don’t support our local media, who will?

Tom Gardner, of Amherst, is professor of communication at Westfield State University and founder of the Henry Wefing Memorial Journalism Scholarship Fund at WSU.

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