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Opinion | The Collapse of Newspapers Puts Democracy in Peril

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There was a time when road trips I took invariably included picking up local papers. I’d read from Page 1 through to the editorials and sports. They offered a screenshot of a small but real world — an ongoing scandal on the school board, a winning season at the high school, the death of a beloved teacher.

Many reporters of my (advanced) age got their starts on small daily or weekly papers, back then fixtures in most every town or suburb. Mine was The News Tribune in Woodbridge, N.J., an independent daily with a circulation of about 58,000. We covered everything from school board meetings to a local kid who made Eagle Scout. The first big story I covered was a local election, a crash course in politics and the source of one of the best — and possibly most prophetic — quotes I ever got, from an incumbent mayor who lost and snarled, “The two-party system is divisive.”

Looking back at those papers isn’t just the nostalgia of an old newspaperman. They were the building blocks of community, democracy, politics. Their loss is a major reason behind the acute polarization and political confusion we are suffering today. “In the past decade, a broad perception has formed that local news is in a serious crisis,” write Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy, both veteran journalists, in their new book, “What Works in Community News: Media Start-Ups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate,” which explores ways in which various communities are trying to fill the vacuum.

The News Tribune is long gone as an independent daily. It did not simply die, as so many local papers have; after a series of mergers and sales, it ended up a part of a news site, My Central Jersey, with a staff of only 10 editors and reporters covering an area far greater than the old paper served. Still, it’s a better fate than that of the 2,900 or so dailies and weeklies that have gone under since 2005, one of the last years of “normal” journalism in the United States, 130 of them over the past year, as tallied in “The State of Local News 2023,” a report released this month from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

The News Tribune was an afternoon paper, which was typical for northern New Jersey, where the big New York papers dominated the mornings. The hometown paper was waiting on the doorstep after work, with the local news, as well as supermarket coupons, classified ads, church service schedules and high school sports scores.

It was a great school for a rookie reporter. The veteran editors had time to go over articles, and reporting on local scandals, strikes or council meetings offered a crash course on accuracy and fairness. You were writing, after all, for people who knew the turf and would light up your phone if you got it wrong. The paper had a special hell for a new reporter after the first mistake that required a correction: The person would be made to get up on the round editors’ desk in the middle of the newsroom and eat a hot chile from a jar kept especially for the ordeal by Elias Holtzman, one of the veteran editors. I took my turn, gagging as the pepper burned a permanent fear in my mind of getting it wrong.

Young reporters usually didn’t stay long — not because of the chiles but because a local paper was the classic starting rung, the apprenticeship, for a career in reporting. But the training was invaluable and the experience unforgettable, especially for the power of reporting to get things done. Keeping tabs on local politicians in northern New Jersey was always productive; a series I did with a colleague on the exorbitant fees charged by municipal attorneys prompted public indignation and action, and the quotes were rich. A local official charged with taking bribes offered this wisdom when flying off to the Caribbean for vacation: “The good thing about America is a man is innocent until proved broke.”

It was a school, too, for readers. The candidates in local elections or speakers at school board meetings dealt with matters that made a tangible and immediate difference to readers. Official corruption was not some distant problem; it was misuse of funds that should have gone to your child’s school or your library. By way of a footnote, it was satisfying to learn that the lies of Representative George Santos were revealed, before he was elected, by a small Long Island paper, The North Shore Leader. Pity the word didn’t spread then beyond its 20,000-odd readers.

“The paper was deeply ingrained into the area,” recalled Charles Paolino, who was the managing editor at The News Tribune when I worked there. “It had been published so long, since the 19th century, that people looked on it as a place to call if they were in trouble or couldn’t get satisfaction from a store or couldn’t figure out the red tape. We were a friend in the neighborhood. What worries me is who’s doing that now?”

And not only that. Ms. Clegg, a veteran reporter and retired opinion editor of The Boston Globe, laughingly recounted how she had to knock on a neighbor’s door in Brookline, Mass., to find out if he’d won in a local election. Mr. Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said the local information vacuum left people susceptible to the polarized diet of national news, so that parents showed up at school board meetings yelling about vaccinations or critical race theory but without a clue on issues like math tests and new facilities.

“Voter participation goes way down when you don’t know who’s running. There’s a lot more straight-ticket voting now,” Penelope Muse Abernathy, the author of “The State of Local News 2023” and a former colleague at The Times, told me. “Part of the beauty of having many reporters is they showed up at meetings. If there was a bond issue, they reported this is what it was going to cost. What happens is we end up paying more in taxes, there’s more corruption, and nobody’s minding the store.”

In the early 1900s, America had about 24,000 weekly and daily papers. The number dropped throughout the 20th century, and the pace has greatly accelerated over the past two decades. “Today we have only 6,000 surviving newspapers, many struggling to survive,” said the report. And they are continuing to vanish at the rate of more than two a week. Some areas have become “news deserts,” in Ms. Abernathy’s term, with no reliable news source — print, digital or broadcast. Most are in high-poverty areas.

The reasons for the decline have been amply documented. Advertising fled to the internet, forcing many papers to go under, while chains and hedge funds snapped up struggling papers and slashed their staffs to the bone. For a time, it looked as if even the strongest papers might not make it.

But there are signs that things are looking up. In their book, Ms. Clegg and Mr. Kennedy chronicle various ways in which local and regional news organizations — whether paper, digital or radio — are trying to restore local coverage. Most are nonprofits, often assisted by a number of foundations that assist news start-ups. It’s not a flood, but what is certain, they write, “is that the bottom-up growth of locally based news organizations has already provided communities with news that would otherwise go unreported.”

I certainly hope so. Rummaging through the internet for stories about my old paper, I came across a piece that Mr. Holtzman, the keeper of the chiles, wrote after The News Tribune ceased to exist as an independent daily in 1995: “Another newspaper down the drain, and with it, the vitality that came with coverage of a local community, the uniqueness of its own brand of journalism, the vitality of competing, and beating the competition, and all that the newspaper meant to the communities it served.” It would be great if reports of the death of local journalism proved to be exaggerated and Eli had to stand on his desk gagging and shedding tears.

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