I live in a dynamic town that has seen population zoom from 30,000 in 1990 to over 76,000 today.
Yet, about three years ago the last of our local newspapers died from starvation. No one was there to print its obituary and no one has been brave enough to start another newspaper.
It’s been the same story across the country – and always with the same root cause: the demise of the classified ads section. Want-ads were always a local paper’s financial foundation. But with the internet came innovators like Craig’s List who simply did the job more efficiently. Publishers who’d used their want ad revenue to keep a robust number of reporters and editors soon found themselves trimming and pruning – first, “non-essential personnel” like drama critics and syndicated columnists, then even the local sports reporters. Ere long the editorial space was filled wire service snippets and “sponsored” (paid for) columns on proper foot care by the local podiatrist or pet care by the vet. The only way you could get a couple of paragraphs in the paper about your kid’s no-hitter was to write it yourself and fill out an on-line form like a loan application. Finally, even the managing editor was out the door and the printing press went up for auction.
Across the country the number of community newspapers is shrinking by roughly 9 per cent a year, according to the Pew Research Center. Last year the combined circulation of the nation’s 1,330 remaining newspapers sunk to a level not seen since 1945. The big metro papers aren’t doing so hot either, but big brand national advertisers keep them afloat, along with on-line subscriptions.
Most of us get along without purely local news, but it’s nice to know when your neighbor’s kid kicks a winning field goal. Same for obituaries, the high school basketball team and the village council meetings. In fact, when you stop to think about it, local papers have been downright essential in smaller towns about keeping the mayor honest and airing complaints about the overzealous traffic cop in car 12. They’ve truly been cornerstones of democracy.
So, why don’t we do like the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) on a local scale? Just as the BBC is an arm of the British government, suppose a township or county actually budgeted a subsidy for a community newspaper? No, I don’t mean giving some fat cat profits on a silver platter. It might work something like this:
ABC Town has 20,000 taxpaying households. Publisher XYZ knows it can put out a newspaper for $900,000 a year, but experience shows it will cost $1 million. ABC Town offers a $100,000 contract per year over five years. Cost: about $5 per taxpayer for a printed paper on the door stoop three times a week. Benefits: all the above plus news of weddings, graduations, school plays and a gossip column – all stuff you won’t get in the New York Times.
Don’t get hung up on the contract terms. Maybe it’s a three-year deal for five days a week for $150,000 – but for now let’s just focus on the concept.
Okay, I see hands up all over the room. Yes ma’am: You ask about politics – the possibility of Trumpsters seizing control or crazed Dems spreading vitriol. Well, the BBC has had to walk a political tightrope for years and is still performing its delicate balancing act. In fact, knowing that the contract publisher would be subject to an annual review by a local governing body would probably produce more objective, mellow political coverage than would an independent owner with a William Randolph Hearst complex.
Q – What if the publisher made obscene profits?
A – The contract would require the publisher to open its books annually, allowing the subsidy to be downsized or eliminated.
Q – Suppose the publisher suddenly folded and ran off with the money?
A – The subsidy could be doled out monthly. Besides, the publisher would be subject to the same criminal statutes applying to, say, the municipal garbage contractor.
Q – Could a news media like this be expected to cover a REALLY BIG scandal or natural disaster that erupted in its own backyard?
A - Perhaps not. But at the first whiff of something that big, you can be sure that the TV news trucks will be there to take over.
In short, this nation needs a seamless journalistic coverage from local to state to national level. By helping to re-establish a newspaper in every community, local governments would help bridge a gap that has grown alarmingly wide. Recently, bills have been introduced in Congress that aim to make it happen with federal money. But most towns or counties can afford to seize the initiative without waiting for Washington.