Opinion: When Local Newspapers Suffer, So Do the Communities Around Them

Image by AnthonySan from Pixabay

McClatchy, the nation’s second largest newspaper, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Feb. 13, and while the filing won’t immediately affect its newsrooms, one can’t help but see the announcement as more evidence that print journalism is dying before our very eyes.

McClatchy is only the latest newspaper company to file for bankruptcy, following in the footsteps of other legacy newspaper companies who have filed for Chapter 11, which include outlets such as Tribune and GateHouse Media.

According to an Associated Press analysis published in 2019, more than 1,400 towns and cities in America have lost a newspaper in the past 15 years. Newspaper circulation has declined every year for the past three decades. Staffing has sharply declined as well, as the Pew Research Center said the number of reporters, editors, photographers and other newsroom employees fell 45 percent nationwide between 2004 and 2017.

But this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. Pundits and journalists have heralded the death of print for at least a decade.

There are many reasons and theories for why this is happening. The AP study blames “revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers or reasons peculiar to given locales for that development.”

But no matter the reason, when local newspapers suffer, the communities around them suffer.

Without local papers, communities’ have no one to chronicle what is happening at city council meetings. They have no one to write about their children’s basketball games. There’s no one who can look at national headlines and interpret what impact they could have on the local community, for the community.

There is no record of local happenings without a newspaper. That means years of local history lost to future generations.

With no newspaper, no one reports on crime, leaving communities vulnerable to crime epidemics.

Newspapers can bring about change by putting a spotlight on issues and giving a voice to communities who are usually ignored by government institutions.

Take the Fresno Bee’s examination on substandard housing, for example.

The four-month long multimedia project, known as “Living in Misery,” exposed the squalid conditions that many low-income renters lived in.

The 2016 project received widespread public and government attention. The city responded by passing laws that required property owners to make repairs when it found violations, rather than levying fees.

This kind of journalism — the variety that exposes injustice and gets results — is at an especially high risk of being lost when local newspapers go out of business.

But the situation is not as bleak as it sounds. Print publications are adjusting by moving into the digital space. Digital subscriptions are on the rise for many publications around the country, including McClatchy, who reports about a 50 percent increase in digital subscriptions each year.

It is also the smaller newspapers, such as the Clovis Roundup, that are uniquely suited to survive the transition to the digital era. This is because of their ability to hyper-localize their content and to serve in the role of “good neighbor” rather than “watchdog.” (But both have their place in today’s media landscape)

A report released by the Nieman Journalism Lab in 2017, said, “In terms of brand, reputation, and unique reporting, smaller-market newspapers are well placed to provide a valuable, distinctive service many communities will ultimately pay for through subscriptions, memberships, or events.”

Acting as the “good neighbor” places smaller newspapers such as the Roundup at the heart of conversations revolving around community news.

By focusing solely on local news, small newspapers create and reflect a unique sense of community. They have an easier time bringing people together and play a more active role in the “real spaces” of the community.

Look to the Roundup’s Get Fit Clovis series as an example. Each month, the Roundup encourages members of our community to exercise through monthly meet ups. The meet ups allow people to connect and discuss local news, all while getting a workout in.

The approach is working well for the Roundup. The publication more than doubled its staff in the last year and is seeing an increase in both print and digital subscribers.

So while print journalism continues to struggle, it’s doubtful that it will ever die. For as long as there are people with a hunger for truth and community storytelling, journalism will live on.

Ron Camacho
Ron Camacho was born and raised in Clovis. He attended Clovis High School and graduated from CSU Fresno in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications and Journalism. Before joining the Roundup, Ron wrote for Pollstar Magazine and the Sanger Herald. He has a deep appreciation for the arts and is a lover of music, cinema and storytelling. When he’s not busy looking for his next story, Ron enjoys taking weekend expeditions to the beach or mountains to practice landscape photography.