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As Long as We Remember...

March 4, 2013

Why Local Newspapers Will Fail

Steven R. Berryman

During my traveling days, I took to reading local newspapers wherever I went, in part to become more quickly acclimated. The Reading Eagle, The Ithaca Times, and The Richmond Times-Dispatch are just a few.


I got an early start with the fascination of newspapers delivering The Washington Star and The Washington Post as a child. When we got done early we’d read through it to see what all the fuss was about. Later in college, an Economics 101 professor insisted we read The Wall Street Journal each day to become familiar with the background of the topic.


Being a TV addict back in the day, a fascination with the Watergate hearings – massively broadcast – introduced young investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as heroes; that also led back to The Washington Post.


Upon moving to Frederick, I strangely became drawn into activism, which eventually caused me to be a regular columnist at The Frederick News-Post for awhile – every Friday. Just prior to that, the News-Post had devolved from more senior reporters and columnists, once including’s own esteemed Roy Meachum.


Financial constraints had dumbed it all down to a more elementary level.


My daily routine has been to follow the local papers each morning, to be on top of the “news curve,” as being first to know topical things sometimes carried with it benefits; not being well informed always carried the danger of seeming ill-prepared.


Tracking the paper, the News-Post in this case, has been fascinating in simply watching the continuing demise of not just this print institution, but also the medium itself.


As a columnist I recall being constantly reminded to “keep it local,” by my editor. I always trended to the national and overarching topics, especially when controversial in vantage point, and was rewarded by a sea of online comments, and e-mails in response.


By tracking comments both good and bad, it was easy to track breadth of readership, and the pulse of the agitated among us. Happy people that agree with you take the time to comment far less often!


Of late I’ve noticed many aspects of the News-Post that indicate decline, searching for identity, and confusion about its own local audience. Associated Press wire service stories have become a staple item now. This past Sunday was dominated by national items involving the “fiscal cliff,” and of “sequestration” in “Cuts in place, Obama, GOP brace for next fight.”


The above story firmly in place in the local section of the online edition.


Inserting the easy to cut-and-paste national stories has been going on for months now, perhaps in part due to the influence of new publisher Geordie Wilson. Additionally, any continuity in the Editorial Page has been removed with the random “local” columns.


Yet I digress. This blurring of the local with the national seems to transcend any intentional editing by News-Post.


For example, federal institutions locally include our own Fort Detrick, now making contingency plans to contract, as forced by long-term impacts of sequestration. (Not by a short-term impact of “sequestration,” as threatened by our president, who frequently visits our backyard Camp David to hide out. He never visits the City of Frederick, and must consider us simply “fly-over country.”)


Also a big story that could be local-national is the fact that Fort Detrick was to double in size as a recipient of the BRAC base closings and consolidations. They got the buildings, but not the soldiers and scientists, in part due to cutbacks. Fort Detrick has a complete hiring freeze, and has granted no new contracts for months now!


Other big local stories that are also national include inflation in the price of gasoline, and its derivative problem of exploding food price Inflation. Which section to you put this in?


A local Sunday column by Jack Topchick bemoans the lasting impact of “Feminism” on the nation…but barely uses that F-word in it. Local or national?


So the identity crises between what “is” for a local paper and what “is not” continues: How about guns, or illegal immigration? Maryland is now famous for these topics nationally! What section do we go with? Do we get more AP stories spliced-in, or do we weigh-in?


This bowing to generic news adds – typically available on the Internet 24 hours earlier – certainly diminishes any clout the News-Post had ever had; why would the readership be interested in any local board of editors weighing in on national topics? We still see much ego and self-importance reflected onto the Editorial Page.


It doesn’t do much good to aspire to be a “newspaper of record” when you are projecting somebody else’s record! It’s a “delusions of grandeur” kind of thing… So the problem to locality is: where is the news that you can’t find anywhere else?


High School sports roundups and true crime can only take up so many column inches.


Recently an “Ask the Editor” piece by editor Comfort Dorn insisted that the long-term importance of the News-Post was wrapped in publishing more “true crime” stories. First, how could they do that? The paper once was chided for printing photos of local athletic heroes on the same line as Frederick’s Most Wanted; the groups undistinguished from each other!


More True Crime!  Brilliant strategy; not.


No, the “newspaper of record” thing is not the answer in the age of real-time news. True crime has been done to death, and even the News-Post can’t make that more interesting by selecting out special targets.


As advertisers flock to the Internet, chasing the dollars back to the news-reader’s laptops, what will we do with all of these rusting red newspaper kiosks?


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