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Constance Alexander: National Newspaper Week celebrates journalism and its vital role in democracy

Besides the one about blizzards with snow drifts so high he had to climb out a second-floor window to make his way to school, my father’s other story about growing up in Canada was that he hawked newspapers every morning on a busy corner of St. John, New Brunswick, from the time he was six years old.

He swore he was up every day at five to get his bundle of The Telegraph-Journal and lug it to a spot downtown where businessmen and tradespeople could be tempted to spare a few pennies for the news of the day. Still “hot off the press,” the papers stained his hands with black ink that had to be scrubbed away before the nuns at St. Malachy’s saw it.

The Newspaper Boy (1869) by Edward Mitchell Brunswick (Image used under Creative Commons License)

Daddy was in newspapers for most of his professional life, always on the business end. He met my mother when they worked for the same paper in White Plains, NY. After they married during the Great Depression in 1933, he had his ups and downs job-wise, but always managed to find employment in the industry he loved.

During World War II, a newspaper lured him to New Jersey, much to my mother’s chagrin. It was a lucrative move, and the Alexander family grew from three to five kids in the Garden State. When the Gannett chain bought the Perth Amboy Evening News, my father retired, but never lost his newsie habits. During the week, we were a two-paper family, but we hit the jackpot on Sunday with a journalism trifecta: New York Times, Daily News, and Journal-American.

When my father first got the news bug, there were more than twenty-two hundred daily newspapers in this country, with twenty-nine dailies in New York City alone. In the nineteen twenties, radio entered the arena, and then in the late 40s and into the 50s TV got into the picture. Newspapers adapted and adjusted their coverage to increase circulation, but nothing new surfaced until 1982, when Gannett created USA Today. Since then, mergers and acquisitions in the business have flourished while the number of actual news providers has waned.

In the 1980s, 90s, and into the new millennium, digital technology and social media began flexing their muscles. The 24-hour news cycle took hold. Audience demands changed as online news sources proliferated and “entertainment” became a factor in attracting an audience. The Courier-Journal, once the state newspaper, closed its regional bureaus and dialed back to focus on Louisville/Southern Indiana. News organizations of all sizes struggled to stay afloat while seeking viable business models.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Today, in small towns like Murray, newspapers are David with no stones to hurl at Goliaths who are buying up local papers and consolidating coverage. In our own region, one privately held media group controls the NBC affiliate, as well as dailies and weeklies in Paducah, Hopkinsville, Madisonville, Owensboro, Mayfield, Leitchfield, Russellville, Benton, Cadiz, Eddyville, Dawson Springs, Princeton, and Providence.

Today, the trend continues. According to the Pew Research Center, the estimated U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) was 24.3 million for weekdays and 25.8 million for Sundays. Each number was down 6% from the previous year. Digital circulation is on the rise, but advertising and circulation revenue in the industry is down and employment in newsrooms all over the country is dwindling.

What is the impact on local coverage?

It’s not a pretty picture.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Financial Economics, when newspapers close, local government efficiency deteriorates. Town and county workers’ wages increase compared to local private-sector employees, leading to a 1.3% increase in the government wage ratio to other county employees.

The median county studied increased wages by a total of $1.4 million overall and hired an average of four more government employees per 1,000 residents.

The burden on taxpayers increased accordingly. Each taxpayer paid an average of $85 more per year. This might not sound like a lot, but it actually amounted to .25% of the median wage–$33,700–in the counties studied.

Another grim outcome of reduced local coverage is that civic engagement falters, making it easier for politicians to hire more friends, pay them more, and raise taxes. The study also found that the interest rate towns and counties pay on their debt increased as local newspapers died. When there is no local scrutiny of public finances, debt costs more because the public has less information about the level of risk assumed by governments as they take on more liabilities.

Unless there is a natural disaster, mass murder, or sex scandal, national media ignores local news. Investigative reporting at the local level is difficult with reduced staff, and increased desperation to attract and keep advertisers may end up skewing editorial content.

This week marks National Newspaper Week. If you believe your newspaper is not doing its job, tell them. Write letters, speak out. Strong local journalism builds social cohesion, encourages political participation, and improves the efficiency and decision-making of local and state governments. Local news organizations that will survive change will be led by creative, disciplined professionals invested in the long-term to address the information needs of their communities.

If you are pleased with your paper, send a thank you to the publisher, editor, reporters, and columnists. Write a letter to the editor on a local issue that matters to you. Purchase a subscription to show your community pride. Invite the editor or publisher to speak at your service club of brown bag lunch.

“Community Forum” is the theme of this year’s National Newspaper Week, with emphasis on the importance of local journalism and its vital role in democracy. How is your newspaper doing? What are you doing to make it better?

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