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Long: The gaps that can only be filled by a local paper

January is a good time to stop, take stock, count blessings and appreciate the often-overlooked assets we enjoy. So as we begin 2022, I’d like to spend a few column-inches to remind you of the valuable, but increasingly endangered, commodity you hold in your hand: the local newspaper.

Yes, I know I’m preaching to the choir here. By definition you are a partaker of local news by virtue of the fact that you’re now reading these words. Yes, I know many of you are reading an electronic version instead of an old-fashioned newspaper that smells of ink and pulp. But nonetheless, take a few minutes to remind yourself of the force for good that the local newspaper has been and still is.

I grew up reading the paper every day, beginning at a ridiculously young age when this particular paper came in both morning and afternoon editions, and was usually thrown on your porch by a strolling teenager. (In fact, I was one of those strolling teens.) That we got a newspaper every day was a simple constant that I took for granted — until the past 10 or 15 years or so.

It will come as no news to you consumers of the news that local papers have struggled lately. Staffs have been cut; subscribers have vanished; other media have come to dominate the way we encounter current events. Even the size of the paper itself has diminished. But the outsized role the local press plays has remained an essential ingredient of community cohesion and governmental responsiveness.

I hear from a lot of people that the paper isn’t what it used to be. For instance, earlier deadlines mean that we sports fans often wait an extra day to read analysis of the big game, when it ends after suppertime or so. Chances are by the time it’s in the paper I’ve already gotten the score and recaps from more rapid sources. Annoying sometimes, but it doesn’t change the fact that the sports page remains one of the highlights of my day.

Across the nation, many venerable dailies have dispensed with the print edition altogether, offering only digital news. Others have folded entirely. A lot of factors drive this. If you have a hard-copy paper in your hand, take a minute and flip through. You don’t see as many ads as you once did. When I was a kid, the paper was full of local ads for mom-and-pop groceries and neighborhood tire shops. There are fewer of these businesses around to advertise, and the ones left have other options to get their message out. Meanwhile, a whole new generations of potential readers barely knows what a newspaper is. They consume news differently, and see no need for old-fashioned newspapers.

Markets change, customer expectations evolve. Maybe the demise of the print dinosaurs is inevitable, except perhaps in giant cities. But here’s my concern with all this: when the local paper of Anytown USA closes shop, who keeps Anytown City Hall on its toes? Sure, local TV affiliates do news, and do it well. But TV news comes in soundbites, not hard-hitting investigative stories of 2500 words with follow-ups in coming days.

There will always be news outlets to cover Washington and even Richmond. But who will hold local government’s feet to the fire if local reporters disappear entirely? Or cover local schools or nonprofits or the cute kid whose lemonade stand deserves some attention? Not to mention the role of the local paper as the first draft of local history.

Right now, the local newspapers do this for you, in our area at least. And yet they perform these vital, underappreciated civic tasks with the odds increasingly stacked against them. Maybe the day will come when local papers are no more. If I live to see that day, I’ll consider it a tremendous loss.

In 1903, a couple of local newsboy poets paid tribute to the local papers, at least the society coverage of social events and gossip (these poems were how the paper carriers solicited their holiday tips from subscribers back in the day):

* * *

“So in this merry mundane show, the local press fills up a gap.

For otherwise, how would you know about the dashing Mrs. Knapp,

Or how the sweet Miss Furbelow led off the dance with Mr. Strauss?”

* * *

So in our merry, mundane show of 2022, take a moment to consider the gap filled by the local paper, and appreciate the good thing you hold in your hand.

Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.

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