Goodbye newspaper, goodbye community?

I don’t just come from a city in Kentucky; I come from a community. And I believe that one of the things that has made Henderson a community has been our local newspaper, The Gleaner.

I started reading The Gleaner as soon as I started to read. Everyone in my family read The Gleaner. Every neighbor read The Gleaner. Every adult I knew referenced the newspaper regularly. We all knew what city and county ordinances were up for debate, who had died, who was running for what office, what was happening in the state legislature, who was getting married, who had gotten divorced, local team sports scores, what Spring musical the high school was doing, and all the other things a community should know. The news from our paper crossed lines of culture, ethnicity, religion, political belief and neighborhood. The news was about us, for us. In so many ways, The Gleaner was the best representative of our community, as a whole.

I worked at The Gleaner when I was in high school. I worked there again as a summer intern in 1986. More than 25 years later, when I’m back in Henderson, people recall some of the stories I wrote, some I don’t remember myself. When I left Kentucky, my parents bought me a subscription to my hometown paper, and I would get the newspapers in bundles in the mail. I was long gone from Henderson, but I knew what was going on there. I used what I learned from my time working at this paper in my press relations career, which I chose over a journalism career. More than once, I had a reporter tell me, “I can so tell you worked at newspapers. You always have the info I need!”

In the 1990s, what I dreaded for so long happened: the local owner of The Gleaner sold the newspaper. It came under the management of a newspaper in another state. I got a taste of the identity and news Henderson was losing when I went to The Gleaner‘s web site but couldn’t access the front page story about the death of Dr. Donald Cantley, a beloved member of the Henderson community, a former president of the Kentucky Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics who devoted his life to improving the physical and mental health of children. He established seven school-based clinics to provide care for children with inadequate health coverage of other barriers to care, and was a pioneer in his approach to caring for children with behavioral disorders. It was huge news in Henderson when he died, but the web site had been revamped in such a way that anyone with a Mac OS just a year out of date couldn’t access it. Furious, I called The Gleaner, and a staff member and friend told me, sorry, but the web site is managed by the Evansville, Indiana Courier Press. So I called that other office, asked that the front-page story be emailed to me, told them why, and they sent me… the obituary from page 2. Because they didn’t know who Dr. Cantley was. They didn’t know he was on the front page of the newspaper in Henderson, Kentucky.

When I was last in Kentucky, I was stunned at the skimpiness of my hometown paper. The cuts in reporting staff have been devasting on local coverage. And the Internet has not replaced this information; I just tried to find some of the information I used to find in my hometown paper, by spending time on various organization’s social media and web sites – funeral home web sites, school social media accounts, government social media sites, etc. I think I know less than a quarter of what I would have known in the same amount of time with a version of the newspaper produced in the way it was in the 1980s.

I remember when I was studying for my journalism degree at Western Kentucky University. One of my professors said that, if you are ever out of story ideas in your local community, just look at the newspaper’s classified ads – there will be something there that will lead you to a story. Classified ads in newspapers now barely exist, replaced by Craigslist. Honestly, I feel like most Craigslist ads are either scams or from creepy people I really don’t ever want to meet face-to-face.

I long ago accepted that my hometown newspaper is going away, slowly but surely. I know this is happening all over the USA. 105 newspapers closed in 2009 alone. In 2007, there were 55,000 full-time journalists working at nearly 1,400 daily papers; in 2015, there were 32,900, according to a census by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University, and that number doesn’t include the big buyouts and layoffs last fall, like those at the Los Angeles TimesThe Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Daily News, among others, and weeklies and magazines like National Geographic.

But what is the cost of this loss? “You know who loves this new day of the lack of journalism? Politicians. Businessmen. Nobody’s watching them anymore,” said Russ Kendall, quoted in this blog on the Bill Moyers site. Kendall was a long-time photojournalist and editor who is now self-employed as a pizza maker. Indeed, I’ve wondered often if state legislatures have been so prolific in some of their legislation that rolls back civil rights legislation, women’s access to health care, environmental laws and more because they know they aren’t being scrutinized by the public the way they were 30 years ago, because of the demise of newspapers.

But the loss is also the loss of community. What city and county ordinances are up for debate? What is happening in the state legislature? What Spring musical is the high school doing? I ask – and people aren’t sure, they can’t remember… not in Henderson, not in the small town where I live now, in Oregon. Local information is slowly disappearing – along with local connections. And social media ain’t so social.

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