Local journalism still matters, today more than ever

When I was a kid, I walked to school, uphill, both ways, in a driving snowstorm (regardless of the season, mind you), while dodging katana-wielding ninjas and regularly having to overcome quicksand and two brothers down the road who were apparently very invested in training for future careers in pulling other people’s underwear over their heads. Oh, and I got my first paying job when I was in elementary school.

Let’s not argue the validity of everything in that first paragraph, alright? For this exercise, let’s just keep our focus on that first job.

I delivered newspapers. Specifically, I delivered the Montgomery Journal. Yup, I was that kid with the canvas bag over his shoulder, often zipping up and down the road on my skateboard while whipping newspapers into people’s hydrangeas and random puddles in their driveways. When it rained, I wrapped each paper in those clear little plastic bags that did very little except trap more water in with the paper. Otherwise, I rolled them up tight and secured them with a rubber band so I could fit as many as possible in my canvas sack.

I wasn’t particularly good at the job. I was terrible at collecting money if people didn’t just hand it over as soon as I knocked on their doors, and if someone was rude to me, well, his or her paper often made it into the first trash bin I came across. But I was pretty good at getting more subscribers, because that meant I could win prizes. And, hey, who doesn’t like prizes?

The Journal was a pretty big deal to people back then. Sure, Washingtonians had the Post and, at that time, the Washington Star, but they mostly focused on the national political scene, some city politics and the professional sports franchises.

The Journal, on the other hand, was where you could find your friends getting press for their high school basketball games, or what happened in local planning-and-zoning meetings, or see the couple who had the local restaurant your family loved get profiled.

It was important. It was a local paper. It didn’t have a particular political bent. It had a particular local bent.

Years later, in 2005, while sitting here at my desk at the Coastal Point, I heard that the Journal had closed its doors. The nostalgia thing made me sad for the rest of that day, and I guess I found some solace in the fact that at least people still had the Montgomery Gazette and Montgomery Sentinel to fill the local news hole. I mean, Montgomery County has more than a million people in it — that’s more than the entire state of Delaware. Those people needed reliable, fair coverage of their communities.

Well, in 2015, the Gazette shut down. It had been for sale for some time by Washington Post publisher Jeff Bezos, but nobody bit, so it went away. Last Thursday, after 165 years of publishing, the Montgomery Sentinel published its last edition. According to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, the Sentinel had a circulation of around 200,000 in the 1990s. That final edition was distributed to around 5,000 people.

Look, I know I come from a non-objective angle on this particular subject, but the loss of community papers is a loss to our collective soul. In an age when information is available at the click of a mouse or a scroll on a phone, there is no end to the amount of data and opinion on the national issues and characters that we all love to fight each other over like it’s a sport.

But we have very few reputable and trusted resources on local issues — the issues that should matter the most to us all on a day-to-day basis. If we lose our local papers, where and when do we find out about raises in property taxes? Or when a new development might break ground? Or that our neighbor’s kid made honors at college?

I’m often reminded of a 2009 House Judiciary Committee subcommittee meeting on “A New Age for Newspapers: Diversity of Voices, Competition and the Internet.”

“The future of quality journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers,” said Arianna Huffington, who was making a splash in online journalism at the time with the Huffington Post.

“The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance,” replied noted journalist and screenwriter David Simon, per thenation.com.

Now, replace “Baltimore” with “Millville.” Or “Dagsboro.” Or “Bethany Beach.” Do you see major online news outlets at those meetings? Or, do you see Kerin Magill or Laura Walter or Susan Canfora or M. Patricia Titus? Or Jason Feather? Or Glenn Rolfe? 

Social media has been fantastic about helping spread the word. I know we’ve gotten tons of tips over the years from locals’ pages on Facebook or people sharing information. But we’ve also written stories debunking things we’ve seen on social media.

I had a friend tell me once that he saw something on Facebook but confirmed it when he read it in the Coastal Point. To me, that’s how this all goes together the best.

Support local journalism. Read your local paper. Advertise your business to local people. Give cookies to your favorite local bald editor. We’re all in this together.

 

By Darin J. McCann
Executive Editor