Local news organizations have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Associated Press on April 3, citing a study from the University of North Carolina, reported that “2,100 cities and towns have lost a paper in the past 15 years.” According to the New York Times, the same study found that “the number of journalists working for newspapers have been cut in half…”
On April 1, the MassInc Policy Center warned that “When local news coverage dwindles, citizens stop voting, serving on boards and commissions, and running for public office.” It went on to point out that large newspaper organizations, such as Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which owns the Gloucester Daily Times, Salem News and Eagle-Tribune through the North of Boston Media Group, are shut out of the federal stimulus package because they are in fact too large. CNHI nationally has some 130 newspapers in more than 20 states with about 5,000 employees.
PEN America in a recent report asked, “Without reliable information on how tax dollars are spent, how federal policy affects local communities, and whether local elected officials are meeting constituent needs, how can citizens make informed choices about who should govern?” It noted that “Because newspapers still provide the majority of original local reporting in communities, their evisceration robs the American public of trusted sources of critical information about health, education, elections and other pressing local issues.”
Now comes word from the publisher of North of Boston Media Group that it has stopped publishing Tuesday and Saturday print editions during the coronavirus pandemic. (News will still be published online.) Under normal circumstances this would be disappointing, but not necessarily surprising. Local media have been cutting back for years. But this announcement reflects the long-term trend now exacerbated by the impact of coronavirus on business generally and advertising specifically.
The future of local newspapers is too important to ignore. They need, and deserve, local support whether through advertising, subscriptions or in some other form – possibly by becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Last November, Nieman Lab, part of the prestigious Nieman Foundation that promotes standards of journalism, reported that the Salt Lake Tribune became the first daily newspaper to be granted 501(c)3 nonprofit status. According to Nieman, “This approval opens the doors for many more commercial legacy newspapers to seek tax-deductible status and philanthropic funding -- a potential lifeline for local news outlets whose owners agree to give up control. “ It may be a stretch, but could be an important lifeline to some.
In the meantime, 20 U.S. senators have decided to advocate for actions to help local newspapers survive, not just because of the impact of the coronavirus on advertising revenues but because local newspapers are vital if citizens are to be kept informed about local actions that affect their lives. In an April 8 letter to Senate majority and minority leaders and the chairman and vice chairman of the appropriations committee, the senators wrote “Local journalism has been providing communities answers to critical questions, including information on where to get locally tested, hospital capacity, road closures … and shelter-in-place orders ... Any future stimulus package must contain funding to support this important industry ... tailored to benefit (those) who make a long-term commitment to high quality local news.”
We get our news from multiple sources, some local, some national and some print, some broadcast and some social media. But, for the most part, local daily and weekly newspapers keep us informed about plans and decisions made locally that have long lasting impacts on the quality of local life. This includes recognition of excellence, whether in sports, the arts, philanthropy, social services or academics. No other single source has that reach and commitment.
Unfortunately, for thousands of communities, decisions by city councils, school committees, planning boards, mayors, selectmen and myriad other organizations are getting less and less coverage as newspapers across the country cut back on coverage or close altogether.
The Washington Post in 2017 adopted as its official slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Big words for a big, national newspaper. For many communities, loss of a daily or weekly newspaper may not be the end of local democracy, but it certainly casts a cloud over it. For many that includes loss of recognition for deeds well done, and the motivation of others that follows. And that’s not good for any community.
Carl Gustin is Gloucester resident who writes occasionally on national, regional and local issues. He is a former director of press services for the U.S. Department of Energy.