Would you care if your town lost its only newspaper?

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Grand Junction has a relatively healthy media community: we have two newspapers, including one daily and one tabloid that publishes three times a week (that would be the Grand Junction Free Press, my personal choice and for whom I’ve written the last two years); a biweekly business tabloid; a senior-news tabloid; a Things to Do tabloid; a student newspaper published by the Mesa State College journalism department; and a gorgeous glossy monthly, the Grand Valley Magazine. That doesn’t include the much smaller community papers, including the Fruita Times and the Palisade Tribune. The Free Press, as many know, went from a Monday-Friday circulation schedule to Mon-Wed-Fri recently, in light of economic conditions that have hit the Western Slope, but it remains very popular and continues to publish the kind of community news and announcements that everyone clamors for.

Considering the relative size of the city, then, Grand Junction’s media community is surprisingly robust. Dallas, for example, has only one newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, and more than one media pundit has predicted that the neighboring Fort Worth Star-Telegram will close and soon be folded into the greater Belo empire. The Irving Daily News used to be published 2-3 times a week, but the Morning News eventually either drove it out of business or took it over entirely; now the Morning News simply comes out with a local edition once a week, distributed only to the subscribers in that area. The same thing happened to a number of other community papers in the greater Metroplex, although a few hearty souls managed to survive and somehow thrive.

You could get D Magazine and its many isotopes (D Home, D Weddings, D CEO, etc.), but they all come from the same small publishing group and share the same staff. There’s the so-full-of-itself-it’s-annoying-but-you-can’t-help-reading-it Paper City, but it’s unabashedly by and about the creme de la creme of Dallas social elite, so the rest of us read it just to be able to lick the pages, so to speak, and wonder what it would be like to be able to wear haute couture.

You could also get The Dallas Observer, the scrappy, award-winning independent weekly whose elegant, breezy, and downright eye-popping prose trumps that of the boring ol’ News anyday. It’s my and B.’s favorite, and we’re so glad it’s still there.

But still, for a metropolis with millions of people, Dallas suffers from a scarcity of great writing and great reporting. The handful of talented writers at the Observer and the News have more than enough to fill their column inches, but the Big D starves for more.

So yes, I’m moving from an amazingly media-friendly community to a shrinking one, and yes, I realize the irony in that statement considering the recent layoffs at the Free Press and the still-ongoing sale of the other paper in town, the Daily Sentinel. Am I going to miss that richness of local content, the gee-willikers tone of reporting and the proud, zealous efforts to elevate that local content above all others?

Hell yes.

Would I care if my town — and even though I’m leaving soon, I still consider it “my town” — lost either of its newspaper? Oh god, yes. I would care if we lost the Sentinel, and I would weep buckets if we lost the Free Press. I grew up at a time when Dallas had not only two newspapers (the Morning News and the venerable Dallas Times Herald) but two editions, a morning and evening. It’s more than mere nostalgia, too. I really do believe that newspapers represent the best and worst of a community, a demilitarized zone where neighbors as well as enemies can bring their grievances and concerns in the most democratic of all institutions and come to civilized solutions. It’s where we go to learn about our world, our neighborhoods and wards and villages, about births and deaths and all the terrible and wonderful stuff in between. Sure, we have the Internet, but with very few exceptions, the really good articles and essays unique to one’s town or neighborhood could really only be found in print. You can find a million people more than happy to sound off on the latest mayoral misstep or the shenanigans at City Hall, but only a tiny fraction will really have something worth reading.

It’s devastating to know that few people would care if they lost their town’s only newspaper, and not at all because I’m a journalist and freelance writer. I’ve had a unique opportunity to contribute to the local news, but it’s unlikely to happen in Dallas, where a kajillion out-of-work, frustrated journalists with far more experience than I are competing for the few remaining slots at the only game in town. But I do care deeply about the newspaper, not the least because — despite what some of the respondents say in the Pew survey linked above — local TV news shows bleed mediocrity. I rarely watch the local news here in Grand Junction, and I’m likely not going to change once I’m back in Dallas.

TV news reporting barely skims the surface of the news, and it certainly never strays beyond offering up the most basic of facts. To really understand the context of what’s happening, I turn to the local newspaper, where reporters and editors cull the sound-bites to uncover bits of the truth. Sometimes they get it right, but more often than not they give the reader more insight than she could ever hope to get from watching a ten-second video on the 10 o’clock babblefest. And with the newspaper, at least you’re spared all the “banter.” Oy, the banter. Is it any wonder that they’re referred to as personalities and not reporters? (I suppose that’s still a step-up from Hairdo, but not by much.)

I remain optimistic that cooler, more practical heads will prevail and that the “death of journalism,” as declared by gloomy prognosticators, will be nothing but a mere bump in the road. I refuse to believe that we are creating a world that will no longer recognize quality writing, critical analyses and solid investigative reporting. I can’t imagine that we will soon live in a society that will rather get crappy content online so long as it’s free, rather than pay for the really good stuff that we used to take for granted. It may be naive of me to believe that such a world couldn’t possibly survive, much less thrive, but I have faith that we’re a lot smarter than that.

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5 thoughts on “Would you care if your town lost its only newspaper?

  1. As much as my professional journalistic ethics cringe every time I think of the Daily Oklahoman, I would miss it if the yellow rag disappeared. The Tulsa World doesn’t have the coverage down here that it would need to take over the base.Every city needs a newspaper to announce happenings in the community and provide oversight on government “Who Watches the Watchmen? We Do.” should be a pop motto for a serious paper. Online or print (and I’m an ink-stained wretch), doesn’t matter. Charge the same for access. Compared to the Dallas Morning News, a paper I’m still proud to be an alum from (?), The Oklahoman has never had an apparent desire to conduct real reporting let alone serious investigative journalism. When they do find a story with potential, they don’t look for the whole story, they just look for the scandal and write the story around that or have to spin it to avoid making the publisher’s politically-connected friend look bad. Twice now, I’ve been on the fringe of some of their reporters’ deliberate misquotes and attempts to manipulate a story instead of just report both sides. Editorializing belongs on the editorial pages, not the front page. I realize scandal sells but good reporters have been trained to ask probing questions, not leading questions. Good editors backup the reporters.If all that’s left to us is going to be local talking heads, Fox News and TMZ, then you can bet the world Mike Judge predicted in his latest movie, Idiocracy, isn’t far behind.In the words of the great Dennis Miller, “Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”

  2. An insightful post about a subject that has been on my mind lately. Very small towns may be in a different situation because they haven’t gone for the “all content for free” model on Internet.I know The Olympian, Olympia’s only paper, which is a long-standing, historic daily of quite good quality, has gone from a “key news” Internet approach to an “all news” site. I remember thinking at the time that this was not a good idea!And I was right — The Olympian is in trouble. Who wants to pay for what you can get free?I care deeply about this local paper that I grew up with, but also feel that the US press has been ridiculously dinosaur-like and, well, out and out stupid (dinosaurs did have small brains, right?) in their harnessing of the web. I’ve been reading the Olympian free for years now from France and ALL THAT TIME I would have been perfectly willing to pay to do so. I’m sure many Olympians living outside of the area would have happily done the same.What were they thinking?

  3. I added in a link about how the paper is cutting its staff — which was announced just a few days after my post. Sigh…

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