Don’t Take Your Local Newspaper for Granted

This week in North Philly Notes, Mary Lou Nemanic, author of Metro Dailies in the Age of Multimedia Journalismwrites about the importance of the daily newspaper. 

I’m endlessly troubled by the politicization of the news media and their demonization as the public enemy rather than as the providers of information that is vital to our democracy. Whenever I hear the news media trashed, the 1787 words of Thomas Jefferson come to mind:

“The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Metro_DailiesI couldn’t agree more. Newspapers today are comprised of individuals who provide us with a critical public service. They should be appreciated for this, not denigrated because the exposure of the facts conflicts with a political agenda.  I wrote Metro Dailies in the Age of Multimedia Journalism to emphasize this point and to make people aware of what profiteering corporations are doing to local newspapers across the country. We need to appreciate the public service our news media provide in speaking truth to power and in illuminating the issues and concerns that are significant in our lives.

The COVID-19 (corona virus) pandemic is a good example of this. While I often go to the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s website for breaking news and I regularly get email summaries of major stories, the newspaper is where I go for in-depth information on international, national, regional, and local levels. There are infographics that show the spread of the pandemic, information on school and business closings and information on the Mayo Clinic fast-tracking a vaccine. There are resources for people who have questions and there are stories with experts who debunk popular social media myths about the disease.

Studies show people prefer long reads utilizing print rather than online platforms, and that newspapers—not online sources—provide readers with most of the original reporting available. And that includes investigations of political corruption and of major community issues, such as COVID-19. Yet, a rather alarming statistic unearthed by the Pew Research Center in 2018 indicates that more than 70% of Americans believe their local news outlets are faring well financially.

However, that means few are aware of what I witnessed in the six years of my study—that major metro newspaper staffs have shrunk from more than 100 to as few as 30 under the ownership of profiteering corporations. Of the five case studies in my book, three newsrooms were stripped to the bare bones. My hometown paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, suffered this fate at the hands of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that made double digit profits as the staff was laid off or offered buyouts until it was reduced to approximately 45 people. This tiny staff is responsible for both a newspaper and a website covering a city of more than 300,000 people.

Dave Orrick, a union representative and state government and politics reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is even trying to broker a deal to get local investors to buy the newspaper from Alden. Alden typically buys distressed companies, harvests them for substantial profits, and then sells off the remains. No individual or group has stepped up yet to buy the St. Paul paper, but Orrick hasn’t given up hope. His dedication to his newspaper and to journalism in these troubled times is truly impressive.

My appreciation for the free press dates back to my days at the University of Minnesota where I majored in journalism. The Journalism School there instilled in me a great respect for the free flow of information. As an undergrad, I had a chance to work for the student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, the fourth largest daily newspaper in the state and a champion of the free press. In a lot of ways, Metro Dailies, is a book in defense of the free press at a time when its credibility is constantly under assault. I urge people to protect their local newspapers from profiteering ownership and to realize that is in our best interest for newspapers to survive and continue to be watchdogs over government and disseminators of essential information so vital to our democracy.

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