Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | December 6, 2011

Singing the praises of local newspapers

“If all complaints had to be accompanied by the submission of a delicious sandwich, then fewer people would voice them while more would be willing to listen.” ~ Writer Michael Wakcher

I’ve been associated with the local newspaper chain since 2000; first as an employee, as a reporter at the Morgan Hill Times and then as city editor at the Gilroy Dispatch, then as a freelancer serving as a columnist and editorial board member at both papers (although the demands of a new job dictated that I regretfully leave my editorial board role at the Dispatch several months ago). Before I joined the high-tech world, I also did extensive freelance work for the papers that included a stint editing at the Hollister Free Lance.

Newspapers B&W from the Flickr photostream of NS Newsflash

That long association means that I often hear people’s complaints about the local papers. If a story doesn’t get the play someone wants, I often hear about it. If someone doesn’t like an editorial, I often hear about it. If someone is irked by a column (not just mine, but also other people’s columns), I often hear about it. If someone finds an error in an article, I often hear about it.

What I hear much less often is appreciation for the important role our local papers play in our communities. That’s too bad.

I’ll grant that the local papers aren’t perfect. But I also expect any complainers to grant that no human endeavor is perfect. Churches, small businesses, universities, multinational corporations, hospitals, charities, unions, corporate lobbying firms, and governmental agencies: They’re all organizations made up of error-prone human beings and, thus, they all make mistakes.

But there’s more reason to cut your local newspapers some slack: The newspaper industry has been ravaged by disruptive technology, dramatically reducing revenue, especially classified advertising revenue.

In 2009, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum reported that the newspaper industry’s advertising revenue, in inflation-adjusted dollars, was at 1965 levels. Chittum blamed disruptive Internet technology like eBay and Craigslist for devastating classified ad revenue and pointed out that the collapse of the housing market reducing real estate ad revenue was the “final indignity.”

Newspapers are working with dramatically reduced resources even from the time I started in the already-in-decline industry in 2000. In 2008, The Inquistr reported that newspaper revenue peaked in 1997 and dropped 65 percent by 2008. 1997 was the same year that classified advertising was the largest share of newspaper revenue at 41.67 percent.

Despite those extremely difficult conditions, our communities are fortunate to have local newspapers that are working with dramatically reduced resources to provide important services.

If you didn’t have your local newspaper, where would you learn about what your local school district is doing? Where would you hear about your city council’s latest initiatives? Where would you hear about the raise granted to the head of a local agency? Where would you learn about efforts by local residents to help various charities, from libraries to food kitchens to battered women’s shelters and more?

You certainly wouldn’t hear about these kinds of important items from the newspapers, television stations, or radio stations based in the large cities that surround us. San Francisco, San Jose, and Monterey based media outlets don’t seem to know our communities exist unless there’s a flag controversy, a cheerleading controversy, or a murder.

Our local papers serve an important watch-dog function: People in positions of power must mind their Ps and Qs because of the local newspapers. They know that what they’re doing is being watched and reported and that provides an important check on their power. The mere possibility of public scrutiny of elected and appointed officials’ actions provided by the existence of the local newspapers is an important incentive for those officials to act in the public’s best interest.

Beyond that, our local papers serve as a place, as playwright Arthur Miller noted, for the community to “talk to itself.” The newspapers report about events in the community and the community debates on the opinion page, and increasingly, on online comments sections. Without the existence of the local newspapers, there’s very little fodder for those community conversations.

Yes, our local newspapers are imperfect – like everything. And when you see room for improvement, by all means, tell your local paper’s editor about it. But make sure that you also frequently take time to appreciate the critical and too-often overlooked role that the local newspapers play in our communities.


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