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🗞️ Community Journalism | Issue #21
How local newspapers keep us connected to place, and why they are in trouble
Placeful is a weekly newsletter exploring sense of place, sustainability, and the actions we can take to more deeply engage with our communities and wild spaces. Each week covers a new topic. To learn more about the “why” behind Placeful, start here.
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It’s Thursday morning, or perhaps Sunday. You wake up and start a pot of coffee, open the blinds, let the dog out. Stretch for a bit. Instead of reaching for your cell phone—which doesn’t yet exist—you take a few steps outside in the crisp morning air and grab today’s edition of the paper. Coffee mug in one hand, other holding the edge of the paper, you lean it against the kitchen table and begin pouring over the headlines of the day. This is your one chance until the evening news, except for a brief radio clip during your evening commute, to get informed on the day’s happenings. You soak in the slowness of it all without realizing that in ten years, this morning ritual will look a bit different—and the news you read will be of a different quality, too.
This isn’t a scene from my life (I wish I had a dog), but it still has a nostalgic flavor to me. I don’t know anyone right now who’s morning routine doesn’t include scrolling through email or social media. The idea of “reading the morning paper'“ seems like an echo from earlier time, at least in my limited millennial experience.
However, when I have the time and mental capacity, I love sitting on the floor of my apartment and reading one of our local newspapers, leafing through the pages, looking for names I recognize. I think of it as a chance to learn something new about how my community works, and who’s making it happen. It’s not a routine—more like a hobby that I partake in every now and then, kind of like crocheting. I know how important community journalism is though, and I am striving to divert attention away from national news and inflammatory headlines and more towards the slower, local happenings of my small desert town.
As we each take a different path toward placefulness, local newspapers, radio stations, and news programs can play an important role in helping us connect to place. But first, we need to make sure they stick around. Today I want to talk about how, just like our morning routines, community journalism is shifting to a new norm—and what we are losing as a result.
In the spirit of sitting down with a cup of coffee (or tea, or whatever your drink of choice is) to read the morning news, let’s dig in!
Local newspapers are in trouble
Some are past that even—they are entirely gone. According to a report that came out in 2019, one quarter of America’s newspapers disappeared in the past 15 years, leaving 200 counties without any newspapers, half of all counties with only one newspapers, and over two-thirds with no daily newspaper. The reasons for this are varied, but the biggest culprits include a 68% decrease in advertising income between 2008 and 2018 as more businesses invest in online advertising, a drop in subscriptions as readers have grown to expect free content online, and a collective shift of focus toward national media, the latter of course being more scalable and therefore profitable for media companies.
The implications of this are not widely known, which is why I think it is important to state them. Community journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy, informing local citizens of the goings-on of their community. Local newspapers often act as government watchdogs, informing community members about decisions being made, and holding officials accountable. They are the ones filing requests for public records that create needed transparency at all levels of governing or other sources of community decision making, such as school boards or chambers of commerce.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication. They found the increase had nothing to do with the economy. Rather, the demise of a paper leaves readers in the dark and emboldens elected officials to sign off on higher wages, larger payrolls and ballooning budget deficits, their study found. (Associated Press, March 2019)
The effects of this issue are not felt equally. In fact, folks living in new deserts tend to be “poorer, older, and less educated than the average American,” which has its own complex implications.
Beyond the financial and governmental aspects of this issue, communities with inadequate local news coverage are also left with a void in communications. For individuals that don’t have access to the internet or prefer not to use social media, print newspapers help them stay aware of local stories, events, and decisions that affect their lives. Classified ads can help people find or advertise job openings, apartment rentals, cars, lost pets, and other things that now end up on Craigslist or Facebook marketplace—which of course, not everyone uses. Community journalists also reports on local schools and sporting events, which are hubs of communal life especially in small towns.
Community journalism and placefulness
When I first moved to Moab and discovered our free weekly newspaper, I was thrilled. I devoured every page, hungry to learn more about this semi-mysterious community we had just moved to. I wanted to know what is on people’s minds, who the changemakers are, and get a feel for what is important to people in the area.
Community journalism has, in my adult life, been important to the development of my sense of place. I am willing to bet this is true for millions of folks across the U.S.—and if that statement isn’t true for you, I’d like to offer a few more reasons why community journalism can support your practice of placefulness.
Familiar voices, trusted opinions
Many folks have a favorite journalist, or newscaster, or audio journalist. I know I certainly do. When I was first living in Colorado, I spent a lot of time listening to KUNC, the public radio station for northern Colorado. I got to know the voices, and eventually got to the point where I was put on the radio just to hear familiar voices, even if I wasn’t necessarily invested in whatever news they were reporting that day.
When there is continuity in the voices we get our news from, I believe it can lead to higher investment. If a journalist that we respect writes something that challenges our assumptions, I suspect we are more likely to look at the other side than we are if the information comes from a journalist or publication that we are not familiar with. This is how we uphold democracy, by learning and challenging each other.
Beyond that, though, familiar voices (whether written or spoken) provide a sense of place, a warm feeling of familiarity, respect, and admiration for the work that journalists are doing to make make local news available to everyone. I’ve heard of folks that still listen to Moab’s community radio station KZMU online even after they’ve moved. Streaming KZMU helps them stay connected to Moab, a community they still love, even after they have left the area. This, to me, is a powerful demonstration of the emotional connection we can have to community journalism and the connection to place it ensures.
Putting your community in context
The Moab Sun News has a column devoted to a relatively new nonprofit in the area, Science Moab. In it, they interview a scientist who is doing research in the area. I love this column because it provides insight into issues being researched locally, and also introduces readers to a member of our community working to make it better. It’s a great example of how community reporting helps us learn more about our place on a deeper level.
As opposed to national news, community journalism gives us a chance to learn something new about the place we call home, and to put it in context with what is happening statewide, nationally, or globally. The issues being reported on, the letters to the editor, the interviews and profiles and various committee meeting minutes are significantly more relevant to our personal lives (typically) than what is being reported on a larger scale. Local newspapers, therefore, can help us understand an issue better and its effect on our lives, communities, and wild spaces.
Opportunities to connect with others
Local newspapers may inform of us of local happenings, like upcoming speaking events, open houses, concerts, sale events, community e-waste recycling days, celebrations, and so much more. These all provide opportunities to meet new people, or strengthen our relationships to our already close friends or acquaintances.
Also, remember newspaper clippings? When we read a story that reminds us of someone else, we can choose to share it with them. It’s a nice opportunity to say “this made me think about you” or “I read about your recent success in the paper and I’m very proud of you.” Little, thoughtful moments like this add up to a lifetime of kind gestures and thoughtful connections with the people with whom we share a geographic radius.
If you are the type of person who prioritizes staying informed on news at the national level, I imagine you are quite exhausted. These last few years have been a lot for many people, and it grows increasingly harder to shield ourselves from negativity, even when we try to take a breather. Negative headlines are everywhere. On this note, I also want to offer one piece of not necessarily advice, but an opportunity reframe and refocus.
Our mental health is often linked to our sense of control over our life circumstances. Things happening in the national level news are almost entirely things that we have no control over, so it is no wonder that folks who surround themselves constantly with national news media and disaster reporting experience higher stress and anxiety.
Though community journalism is not always positive, I believe it does report on issues that we have a higher possibility of exerting some control over. If you are the type of person who feels at a loss of control often, shifting at least some attention from national media to community journalism may help you feel a little less overwhelmed, but still informed. For example, it may be easier to wrap our minds around the vaccine distribution plan shared by our local health department than it would be to know what is going on at the state or national level.
In our pursuit of information, making a point to read, listen to, and support community journalism is one way stay connected to our communities, and through our support of these efforts, ensure that others retain that possibility, too.
P.s. Sharing web versions of these issues on social media is one of the best ways to help me grow my newsletter following and help others learn about placefulness. If you have a favorite issue, please consider sharing it and telling your friends and family a bit about why you connected with it, too!
Make a point this week to read at least one story that is hyper-specific to your local area. If you want to take it a step further and can afford it, start a subscription if you don’t have one already.
Do you have a local newspaper, radio station, or news program that you love? Share what it is and what you love about it in the comments! These end up on the static web version of Placeful.
One organization I came across a while back is tackling the issue of news deserts. It’s called Report for America, and it places emerging journalists in communities or on beats that are underreported. They are doing really awesome work, and I encourage folks to check it out!
Placeful is a weekly email newsletter containing personal reflections and reporting on sense of place and sustainability. Each week I delve into a new topic, wrapping it up with an action item that will help readers foster deeper connections to the natural, cultural, built, and historic environments around them. Read more about Placeful.
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