Support your Local Newspaper

3 Aug

Back in the 1980s in Montgomery, Alabama, I wound up becoming the first development chair for a new Habitat for Humanity affiliate.

On the off chance that this sounds impressive, it wasn’t. The interview process was less than rigorous. At a preliminary meeting, our leader asked a dozen or so of us to spread out into small groups, each devoted to one of the components of any Habitat affiliate. My social work skill set was even more suspect than my carpentry repertoire, so she obviously wasn’t going to steer me toward the Family Selection and Building corners.

“Why don’t you go to Development?” she said, sweetly.

Settling in my corner with two or three others, I then turned around to ask the question on all of our minds.

“Hey Jan. What does Development do?”

“Fundraising,” she said.

I had never done fundraising, but neither had the rest of us. So – perhaps just because I was a newspaper reporter who knew a lot of people … or because no one else wanted to … or because I was tall – I wound up chairing it. Even though the self-help philosophy of Habitat sells itself, I wasn’t terribly good at fundraising – and we were all doing it in our spare time. Often the precious time we put into a single event seemed far out of proportion to the money raised, worrying us all about our ability to house even a few families.

Then one day I got a piece of mail, from a return address I didn’t recognize. It was a $3,000 check – which amounted to about an eighth of a house. The letter was from a local attorney we had never contacted. He was donating because he’d read an endorsement on the editorial page of the local paper – an editorial I didn’t even know was being written. Zero time and energy spent on our part, and three grand to show for our lack of effort.

I find myself thinking back to that local editorial writer a lot this summer – if only because three major newspapers in my home state announced plans to eliminate their editorial departments. The news gets worse. Newhouse Newspapers, a division of Advance Publications, is cutting four newspapers so severely, one wonders if the word “paper” still accurately describes the product. In Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, Newhouse papers are going down to three print editions a week, with daily editions continuing on-line . Even more stunning, Newhouse is making the same move with the Times-Picayune. Some argue that New Orleans, having lost so much of its advertising base after Hurricane Katrina, is a special case. But at the same time, one remembers its Pulitzers for coverage – short-term and long-term – of Katrina and its aftermath. (Besides, a New Orleans newspaper without a restaurant critic? What’s next to go? The Jazz Festival?)

Those of us who mostly consume news on-line might respond by saying it doesn’t have to be the end of the world if the same news product is delivered on internet – but layoffs of more than a hundred journalists suggest that the coverage of communities surely will suffer. Of course, a reader has to be able to afford internet service and a computer to take advantage of what is there.

Others might argue that it could never happen here, in a paper owned by the New York Times, in a city the size of Worcester. They should keep in mind that the newspapers in New Orleans, Birmingham, and Mobile are all based in larger communities – New Orleans is almost twice our size, according to the 2010 census – and boast larger circulations than the 74,563 (combining print and digital) that the Telegram & Gazette reported this past spring.

Of course, the news isn’t all bad. The May 2 Telegram & Gazette article reported that  overall readership “held steady” and online readership is growing, combining for 384,751 Worcester County residents, or 62 percent of people 18 and older. Part of a recent dip in paid circulation had to do with anticipated changes in requirements by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Meanwhile, the newspaper reports about 40,000 on-line accounts for people who can read up to 10 on-line articles a month, which helps in the eyes of advertisers.

Our local newspaper is also working on creative ways to adapt to changes, even as it also strives to serve the community in ways that go beyond what’s on the pages we’re reading every day. As part of a committee working on an education-related project,  I’ve been a direct witness to both the newspaper’s dynamic  leadership and their new offices at 100 Front Street. Meanwhile, as the textbooks tell our journalism students, all of those internet entities are still going to need journalists to provide the content for all those web sites – no matter how much some web publications might water that content down.

What can we do? Obviously, subscribe – digitally, if not in print – and think of your subscription as more than a self-indulgence.

Instead, see the act of subscribing as a form of community service. When one thinks of the myriad ways a local paper fosters connections, disseminates information and dissects debates no one outside our city is going to bother to cover, it’s clear that print journalism is practically as worthy of support as the charities it covers. After all, I wouldn’t know about some of those agencies – or the needs they address – without the newspaper reporting it first. Nor would I feel the same sense of connection to my community as a whole – the ritual of reading affirms that I’m part of the town which I drive about every day. Nor would I bring the same critical intelligence to the needs of the community, or what I can do to help.

Yes, I do gulp when I read the argument above, which verges on equating the still viable business of newspaper journalism with a charity. It brings to mind images of starving journalists – specifically guys in my fantasy baseball league, which began in the newsroom of a paper that no longer exists – staring at me with imploring eyes from direct-mail fundraising letters, asking me to sponsor them for 17 cents a day. I don’t think any of them want to be viewed that way – but one of them was among the casualties of the Newhouse layoffs.

I mean, have things gotten so bad for the printed word that the average citizen should merge his budget line for subscriptions into the one for charitable donationbs?

I don’t think so. But I will assert this: As each of us think about where to best allocate our scant community dollars, the newspaper – with its ability to educate the public about every community need and every non-profit agency, in far more depth than the average newscast – is worthy of some serious consideration.

Besides, how much time can you spend reading one of those ubiquitous charity give-away tote bags? Sure, they’re handy for the beach or for books or for environmentally correct grocery shopping. But no tote bag would’ve told me the latest developments regarding construction of the new homeless shelter on Queen Street, or the passing of a friend’s relative, or Westborough Food Pantry’s innovative fundraising drive, in which fake Olympic torches are placed in people’s yards.

According to Wednesday’s Telegram & Gazette, victims in the Food Pantry scheme find along with the torch instructions to first donate to the Food Bank, then pass the torch to another unsuspecting neighbor. One resident, Marcy Lippold, said that she and her daughter Illana “giggled like crazy this afternoon positioning the torch and hiding around their front yard.”

If only I’d read that story back in my Habitat days …

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