Out and About (Sort of): Local News Deficit by Howard Freedlander

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Our country has a crisis close to my heart. Print journalism is suffering from economic pressure that is stanching the flow of information to residents of communities throughout the country.

Our democracy, strengthened by coverage and hard-nosed oversight of local and state governments, is weaker and untethered; citizens are unaware of decisions and their justification.

As a former community newspaper editor, I understand that better informed readers are better citizens because they learn about their communities and became involved in public decision-making. Though annoyed sometimes by persistent public outcry or even simple questioning, policymakers realize that citizen participation improves the final product.

Not surprisingly, I devour print news. I yearn to be informed. I spend hours every day reading newspapers. I’m addicted. This addiction, however, is healthy. No intervention is necessary.

Recent media coverage of the declining health of local news coverage tells a sorry story.

According to an opinion piece recently written by Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott in the Washington Post, the number of newspaper employees in our country dropped from 456,000 to about 183,000, from 1990 to 2016. Closer to home, The Baltimore Sun employed in the early 1990s four full-time reporters and one part-time person covering Maryland State government, including the 90-day General Assembly. Now it has two reporters occupying desks on the bottom floor of the State House in Annapolis.

Who’s covering decisions and legislation that affects all of us in Maryland?

Who’s making sure that the sausage-making is above-board, free of corruption and conflict of interest?

Who’s covering public hearings and then bothering to stay afterwards to ask questions about what really just happened, and why? After all, we’re talking about a $46 billion enterprise funded by tax dollars.

News stories are going uncovered. Instead, news releases prepared by the entities involved in the outcome become the primary source of information.  

Accountability diminishes on the local level.

For example, Steve Cavendish, president of the Nashville (TN) Public Media, a nonprofit news start-up and former editor of the Nashville Scene and Washington City Paper, pointed during a PBS Newshour interview last week to a recent merger between LifePoint Health and RCCH Healthcare Partners near Nashville, TN in a deal amounting to nearly $6 billion and affecting about 1,000 employees. The Tennessean covered the story, according to Cavendish, with an Associated Press article written in New York. A local rewrite of a news release then followed at the end of the day.

Penny Abernathy, chair of journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina, also appearing with Cavendish last week on the PBS Newshour, cited the loss of print advertising revenue and lack of ability to make up for this deficit through digital advertising and subscription revenue as the reason for the loss of 1,800 newspapers in the past 16 years.

Asked about the impact on consumers, Abernathy said, “Well, it means the rise of news deserts in which residents in communities, hundreds of communities, even thousands, in this country have limited, very limited access to the sort of news and information that’s been the lifeblood of our democracy, everything from when and where to vote, to topics such as education, health, emergency and safety information that we need.”

I believe the state of journalism is dire.

We seek information on social media. We satisfy ourselves with online websites that often feed our political biases. Local news is suffering from neglect. The longtime business model no longer works effectively, except in large newspaper operations like The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Though often maligned for its thin offering of local news and dependence on news releases, The Star Democrat is a vital part of the Mid-Shore community. It provides local news at its purest, including coverage of town and county governments, elections, high school sports, lively letters to the editor, civic organizations and obituaries.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the importance of weekly newspapers in Caroline, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. They provide the glue that keeps a community engaged in current events and offers a forum for opposing points of view. Kent County News has been serving its primarily agricultural community since 1793.

The Star Democrat and our weeklies must live on. I would go so far to advocate that Mid-Shore residents should do everything possible to ensure its continued existence and avoid what has happened throughout the country.

We should subscribe. Business should continue to advertise. We should understand its importance to our community.

A news desert is undesirable.

Next week, I will continue this conversation. I will discuss alternative ways of funding news purveyors.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Jon Powers says

    Dear Editor: Howard Freedlander’s column on the decline of the newspaper business is spot on. The decline is pronounced and accelerating.

    But I do take issue with Mr. Freedlander’s comments vis-à-vis The Star Democrat. They DO rely on press releases and the like but, in the past year or so, I have seen many a great article developed by a team of seemingly dedicated staffers whose imprimatur allows them more freedom than ever. I note stories well developed by Kayla Rivas, John Greip and the editor of my former writing pulpit, Kent County News, Dan Divilio. (By the way Mr. Freedlander, you were correct, I checked your writing as I do often. It is “Kent County News and NOT “The Kent County News”).

    Carry on, large and small newspapers. Where else would I get that black smudge of printer’s ink on the fingertips?

    Jon Powers

  2. Howard Freedlander says

    I think very highly of John Griep, The Star Democrat’s executive editor. He’s dedicated to community journalism.

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