Commentary: The Demise of Local News
Almost every morning between 6:00 and 6:30 for the past 17 years, a "thump" could be heard on my front porch. Last week at 7:30 still barefoot and in my pajamas, I ventured out and went looking for the thing that goes thump. I looked behind the chair, under the table, and even in the bushes but to no avail. My daily copy of the McDonough County Voice was nowhere to be seen.
I have to admit I was a bit at a loss as to how to proceed with my morning, since I usually have a second cup of coffee while I skim through the paper. I thought maybe our reliable newspaper man might be sick, but I figured that I would be able to catch up on the local news when I got home.
Upon returning from work, there was still no paper. Instead what I found was a letter from Gannett Newspaper Corporation in Oil City, Pennsylvania saying I had been approved for a special offer for “new subscribers” to the McDonough County Voice. Seriously? Who are these people?
My Grandpa Ulrey was a newspaper man. After graduating from high school in 1934 he was employed as a linotype operator for the Morrow County Independent. As a little girl visiting my grandparents, I remember going with my grandpa to the newspaper office. The linotype was still there and the old press was still printing papers. Sometimes if I asked nicely he would let me piece together a sentence that he would later print in the paper. “Shhh,” he would say in his quiet unassuming way, “this is just between you and me.” I remember the smell of the place, the big machinery with the leather belts, and the pride he took in covering the news from his community. He was a photographer and reporter for his local paper for 56 years. He knew everyone in the community and he certainly knew who subscribed to the paper and who did not.
When we first began receiving the McDonough County Voice, it was printed and delivered six days a week - Monday through Saturday. It was full of all the information I remember reading about in the Chillicothe Gazette when I was a kid. Who got married, who was admitted to the hospital, who had been arrested, real estate transactions, summaries of what transpired at the city council meetings, information on hospital budgets and taxes, not to mention coverage of the school events including sports and academic achievements of the area’s youth. And of course birth and death announcements. There is a lot to learn about what is happening where you live from reading the local paper. This is a tradition that we have tried to pass on to our now grown children.
It is important to be engaged with your community even if you aren’t able to attend a City Council meeting. Reading the minutes reported by the deputy clerk are not the same as reading what a local reporter records. The last copy of The Voice I read was a shell of what first attracted me to the paper. The front page was full of national and international stories gleaned from the USA Today, Gannett’s flagship newspaper, with not a mention of a town council or school board meeting, or coverage of local COVID cases. There were a few tidbits of local news, but even those were buried behind the advertisements and national sports coverage.
What has happened to our local newspaper is happening all over the country. The Brookings Institute reports that in recent years thousands of small papers have been downsized to skeletal staff, like our own McDonough County Voice, or have been closed altogether leaving “millions of Americans without a vital source of local news and depriv[ing] communities of an institution essential for exposing wrongdoing and encouraging civic engagement.” Even the big newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times have deprioritized local news in recent decades.
In my humble opinion, none of this is happenstance. A recent article by McKay Coppins in The Atlantic exposes how newspapers all over the country are being systematically gutted by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. But this isn’t just about the demise of local newspapers, it is bigger than that. When we don’t have local reporters - for the newspaper or local public radio station for that matter - who are able to attend meetings and ask questions of our elected officials, how can we be engaged citizens? COVID-19 with the subsequent lockdowns and public health mandates that restrict access to public meetings have only exacerbated the situation. A recent NPR story reported that when local newspapers disappear or are significantly downsized, communities tend to see lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and an increase in misinformation. I think that this is something that we see in our own community.
The question is, will we decide that having a local newspaper that covers the news that impacts our lives on a daily basis is worth saving, or will we decide that we don't really care? My Grandpa Ulrey would have cared. I care. And so as a “new subscriber” to the McDonough County Voice I am going to renew my subscription and also continue to support my local public radio station. What will you do?
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.