Fit to print
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet predicted recently that most newspapers will die within five years. Not that I believe much of what The Times or its editors say these days, but that simply can’t be allowed to happen.
Oh sure, we read the angry letters to the editor and online posts: if the local newspaper doesn’t change its liberal posture, readers will cancel their subscriptions; or if the local newspaper doesn’t jettison its conservative local columnist an entire neighborhood is prepared to discontinue its readership.
To them and to others who think life as we know it wouldn’t change much without our local newspapers, think again.
Take a recent issue of The Day, for instance: in addition to some world and national news, there were Page 1 stories about local legislators’ reflections on why they voted the way they did on important bills; the East Lyme girls lacrosse team won a state championship; and dozens of volunteers from all over the country traveled to Groton to help build a large sanctuary at the Groton Bible Chapel. Columnist David Collins chided the City of New London for the unsightly electronic billboard that greets motorists entering the city via Eugene O’Neill Drive, and, rightly, took the state Department of Transportation to task for still not listing local tourist attractions on highway signs.
The lead story in Sports that day was about the Waterford High School softball team winning a state championship less than a week after the school’s baseball team also won a state championship. There was the police log, the schedule of municipal meetings, legal notices, local obituaries and a full-page ad taken by The Williams School announcing with justifiable pride that every member of this year’s graduating class is college-bound.
So now, try to imagine not having access to these and so many other local stories – day after day after day (no pun intended). No legal notices, no real estate transactions, no wedding and engagement announcements, school bus schedules, high school graduations, honor rolls, business openings, court dispositions and so forth.
Yes, the newspaper industry has hit hard times and some of its troubles are self-inflicted. As a conservative, I believe most media outlets are liberal. That is even more troubling when philosophy sometimes seeps into news coverage and placement of stories and photographs. Television and radio are even worse. Whether the consumer is liberal or conservative, the idea of objective electronic media now seems to be an oxymoron.
One need not look far to see evidence of local newspapers’ decline. The Bulletin in Norwich, which once occupied most of a city block in downtown Norwich when I got my first job there in 1977, now occupies a fraction of that in the city’s old train station. The Day’s contemporary press building on Eugene O’Neill Drive is now silent as our local newspaper assigned its printing work long ago to an out-of-state entity.
Newsroom staffs are now less than half the size of those from the industry’s heyday. That results in reporters covering multiple beats, and it shows in the quantity, if not the quality, of specialty or even routine beat reporting. Years ago, reporters assigned to each city and town in a newspaper’s circulation area would generate anywhere from two to five stories daily for local readers. Now, many local stories are relegated to weekly publications that seem to have cannibalized local, daily coverage.
Nevertheless, newspapers − especially small- and medium-sized ones that New York Times Executive Editor Baquet predicts will be shuttered within five years − are part of the community fabric. They report our births, our deaths, and everything of significance that occurs in our lives in-between. Reading the newspaper − either online or hard copy − is the first thing many of us do every single day.
Many readers have a love/hate relationship with their local newspaper. It is a part of our daily lives, but an easy mark for criticism from armchair journalists who have better ideas for what belongs on Page 1 and what editorial stance the paper should take.
Still, even the most ardent newspaper critics will rue the day their local newspaper publishes a story of its own demise on the front page of its final edition. That will be a very dark day indeed for the community, and will prove the ages-old truth that you don’t know what you’ve got … until it’s gone.
Here’s hoping we never have to find out.
William A. Stanley is a former newspaper reporter who worked at The Day and, before that, The Bulletin, before his appointment as campaign press secretary to then-Gov. William A. O’Neill. He covered everything from towns and sports to law enforcement, politics and government. For the past 20 years, he has worked as Vice President of Development & Community Relations at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. His opinion is his own.
Editor's note: While The Day is facing the same big challenges as many small newspapers, we remain confident that our unusual status as an independent company owned by a splint-interest trust, combined with our aggressive efforts to prepare for a more digital-dominant future, will keep us around far longer than Mr. Baquet's doomsday five-year prediction.
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