Last week’s news that McClatchy newspapers were declaring bankruptcy wasn’t a complete surprise. There have been rumors, but that organization isn’t alone, as industry ad revenues have plummeted and paid circulations have dropped precipitously.
Here in North Carolina the numbers are staggering. A recent report of Gannett-owned newspapers in our state showed circulation decreases of 20-30%. Warren Buffett’s BH Holdings just sold, at a price less than what they paid for them, The Greensboro News and Record and The Winston-Salem Journal. McClatchy reported in its bankruptcy filings that circulation for the chain had dropped 58% since 2006.
The UNC School of Media and Journalism reported that more than 2,000 newspapers have ceased publication or merged with another paper; more than 3,800 journalism jobs have vanished since 2004.
A recent publisher for The News and Observer lamented that when he took the job there were some 175 people in his newsroom. Today that count is around 45.
This is bad news. Nobody cares about or will report local news like newspapers. There was a day when local radio stations would report news and community events, but many A.M. stations have gone off the air and much of the rest are little more than automated jukeboxes. Television is never going to report on your city council, board of education or other local events like hometown media. Without good information we cannot make good decisions as individuals, as consumers or at the ballot box.
What Thomas Jefferson wrote in the 1700s remains true, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.”
Many experienced journalists and editors have left the field, leaving fewer and younger replacements who don’t have historical context. Many papers have fewer pages, mostly filled with wire service copy or national news. I may be willing to read about Friday night’s ballgame on Sunday and, as an aside, I’ve even gotten accustomed to having the obituaries in the sports section (that makes sense, why?) but the primary reason I subscribe is to learn what’s going on in my town or county.
We are poorer for other reasons. Local civic clubs, schools, churches and other community organizations suffer from not having an outlet to inform and promote. Local businesses, often unable to afford expensive television have fewer ways to communicate with customers. Maybe the biggest problem is the loss of civic pride and support for local communities, many of which are already experiencing a demoralizing stagnant or declining population.
How will people be informed in the future? There are some credible websites and social media sites, but anyone can start their own newspaper or radio station online. That’s good news and bad. Sadly, few sites contain adequately researched and verified writing, making it hard to believe a lot of what you read online. Much of it is opinion disguised as news.
We’ve been interested in learning about Carolina Free Press, an independent nonprofit news organization dedicated to nonpartisan, in-depth investigative news in the state. It does not pretend to cover local news, focusing instead on statewide issues. Getting grants and contributions can be a way to support professional journalism, but at the end of the day someone has to pay to ensure journalists are paid and operations are sustainable.
Whenever I speak to groups, I tell my audience to support their local newspaper and radio station. There may be things written you don’t like, but it would be really bad news to see papers and stations shut down altogether.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays 12:30 p.m. and UNC North Carolina Channel Fridays at 10 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m.