Do Your Damn Part: Subscribe To Your Local Newspaper

The point of this piece, this entire long piece, is to convince you all, as a collective unit, to go out and subscribe to your state and/or local newspaper en masse if you have the means to do so. And you should do this because it is an act of rebellion.

Our collective girlfriend, Rachel Maddow, has asked us repeatedly to do this. Most recently, it was in response to The Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper, undergoing cuts so massive that one almost can’t believe they’re happening. They began by laying off 34 of its employees (a figure that includes ten percent of its newsroom) last year. It certainly wasn’t because the reporters were bad at their jobs — in fact, the paper has won three Pulitzer Prizes and several national journalism awards in recent years. You might recognize The Star Ledger even if you don’t live in New Jersey due to their Herculean reporting on the Chris Christie Bridge Scandal (though the real Hercules award goes to The Record — more on that later). In the face of so much national attention, both The Star Ledger and NJ.com made another heartbreaking announcement this month — a parent company called NJ Advance Media is being formed so that smaller newspapers (including The Star Ledger, NJ.com, the South Jersey Times, The Times of Trenton and others) can better compete in this digital age. And cuts are continuing. 167 non-union employees at The Star Ledger will lose their jobs. In the newsroom of 156 people, 40 positions will be cut. That’s 26% of the newsroom. In this same move, NJ.com lost 15 of 77 employees (that’s 19%). Again, it’s not because they’re bad at their jobs. And it’s not because these jobs aren’t necessary for the kind of quality reporting they’re currently doing. It’s simply because in the age of giants like Facebook, ad revenue just isn’t flowing. And in the age of “free media,” subscribers are unwilling to pay for local news. Across the entirety of the fledgling NJ Advance Media, more than 300 layoffs just occurred.

I live in New Jersey. And I didn’t know about this problem until Rachel Maddow, a political commentator on national television who does not live in New Jersey, told me about it. I didn’t know about it because I don’t subscribe to my local paper.

I, too, am part of the problem.


Local Papers Do Important Work

State and local papers break news stories that have important national and even international implications — the first paper to break any sort of story about the George Washington Bridge closing was The Record, a daily newspaper covering Bergen County in New Jersey. The person who brought it to light? A traffic reporter — John Chicowski. It doesn’t get any more local than that. The Record‘s Shawn Boberg then broke the story that Port Authority officials were warned about the toll booth closures and did know what was going on. And then days later, the same reporter linked that story back to Chris Christie.

In an area I’m less familiar with, West Virginia, another national story’s been unfolding: The Elk Creek pollution case has focused the United States on the coal industry, on regulation for chemical storage and on who, exactly, is affected when MCHM leaks into the drinking water. But the task of informing local residents that they’ve been advised to not drink the water fell to local news outlets.

According to the Washington Post, state and local papers also broke stories about Connecticut Governor John Rowland‘s massive corruption, that South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was not hiking the Appalachian Trail but visiting his mistress, and the ruptured Exxon pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas.

And thank goodness for the local coverage of Wendy Davis‘s filibuster — no one would have known about it had it not been for the local papers, and it never would have taken off online like it did. The networks sure weren’t reporting on it.

It’s safe to infer that these stories break because the local reporters are there, entrenched in their community with years of experience on their beats. Boburg had been reporting on the Port Authority for years He had the institutional knowledge to spot something untoward and the connections to find out what it was and why.

According to a poll done in 2011 by the Pew Research Center, Americans rely on local newspapers but don’t think that they do:

On 11 of 16 topics that more than 2,000 respondents were asked about in January, newspapers and their websites ranked first or tied for first as a relied-upon source of local information.

But when asked if their local newspaper no longer existed whether that would have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community, 69 percent of those surveyed said no.

The authors hypothesize that newspapers’ greatest strength is in civic topics like taxes or zoning and development that comparatively fewer Americans follow regularly.

While this poll is a few years old, one might argue that the number of layoffs in the reporting sectors point to a continuing trend. Not enough readers equals not enough money. Ad revenue goes elsewhere. And then we have the elimination of a resource that we, in our various local communities, still very much need.

So why is that perception there? Why do people think they don’t need their local paper anymore?


 

TL;DR Culture

I didn’t know what TL;DR meant for a really long time. An embarrassingly long time, actually. Only recently did I discover that it meant “too long; didn’t read.”

I’m sorry. What?

Much of the time we are on the internet precisely to read things — at least, I am. And I can guess you are — you’re reading this right now. And you made it this far (so far, you’ve gotten through approximately 1200 words. Congrats). But that’s obviously not the way the world works. According to Know Your Meme, TL;DR used to be used almost exclusively for calling out commenters or users on forums for the length of comments. But now some websites post a summary of their article or post under the heading TL;DR.

There’s a whole TL;DR culture that’s happening around us and we can all feel it — from the NPR April Fools Day joke that proved commenters didn’t read the post, even when short to this analysis of how to succeed in an era of shortening attention spans. Millenials purchase more books than any other generation, it’s true, and yet there’s a rise of Buzzfeed-style list posts (even ones from which we can ingest news). Studies show that our attention span is, indeed, shortening. I’m not saying lists are bad (we use them all the time), but I am saying diversity in the ways we ingest news is good.

One could argue that newspapers themselves were the early perpetrators of TL;DR — the style of writing for print news publications often dictates putting the point, most of the relevant information, in the first sentence or first paragraph. Hell, I did that here. I told y’all exactly what the point was, first thing.

We’ve become used to bite-sized news and I would argue that picking up a newspaper — actually feeling what a day’s worth of written news feels like in your hands — feels like an awful lot of commitment, even if individual articles are short and sweet and have a lot of relevant information packed into just the first line. Reading a newspaper means taking time that, in our increasingly speed-obsessed society, has become less acceptable to take. In an inforgraphic illustrating how social media is doing our attention span a disservice, one of the cartoons is literally holding a newspaper while making a confused face.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason newspapers are suffering.

Pages: 1 2 See entire article on one page

Profile photo of Ali

Freelance writer and fiction author, Geekery Editor for Autostraddle.com and Fiction Editor for qu.ee/r Magazine. Keep up with her at her website.

Ali has written 264 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

    Please log in to vote

    Except in my case, as in many of yours, where those local papers are also owned by subsidiaries of the big monopolies. I’m generally for the idea, but making sure you are actually getting the real local deal and not the printed version of web bias is super important or you are defeated before you start. Here there isn’t a local paper that isn’t owned by a media giant and I don’t even live in that big of a town.

  2. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Daaammmnn. As I was reading this, I got Zebra Katz’s “Imma Read” stuck in my head, as in: you are totally reading the community on this, you are totally reading me on this. NICELY DONE. I needed it, thank you. Going to subscribe next payday.

  3. Thumb up 5

    Please log in to vote

    RIGHT ON! It’s telling that a protest in my corner of NorCal has led to a lawsuit–instead of arresting the treesitters and those chained to equipment, police handcuffed the news photographer and seized his camera in an attempt to quiet the story. Exactly why everything you said here is true, and so important. (P.S. I’m a subscriber! The choir appreciates your sermon!)

  4. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    There’s the important reasons mentioned in this article to read a local paper, and then there’s the fact that I just found out about a book sale on my college campus that I didn’t hear about until I saw it on the paper’s “events” sidebar. (university library sale where everything’s one dollar!) That’s a pretty compelling reason for me, haha!

  5. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    I’m a journalist who wants to break stories like this (I have to dream!) and this have me the warm fuzzies.
    Just FYI, if your local paper isn’t covering stuff that’s important to you, tell them! Before things happen, if possible, or ASAP once they do. A pro/con to smaller news staffs is that we are more open/desperate for content and sending the right person the right info really can go a long way.
    But, please don’t be mad if the story gets delayed or isn’t on the front page, the reporter you talked to probably also wanted it on the front page!
    Just, support local news guys. We love that you read us and write us off the wall letters and tell us about random stuff going on.
    <3

  6. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    TL;DR
    (Kidding. Seriously though, subscribing to the local paper would make me feel bad about how much paper is being wasted when they also publish it online)

    • Thumb up 4

      Please log in to vote

      And regarding TL;DR: I was just thinking earlier today about how awesome it is that AS articles tend to have multiple pages, with word counts that reach the thousands. It makes me so happy, and I feel like it really sets this site apart from most digital news sources.

    • Thumb up 3

      Please log in to vote

      You know, I actually had a whole section about the environmental aspect of this and I cut it because it wasn’t coming together. It basically said get behind the paywall if the paper part of newspapers isn’t your thang, but it also said that for me- I spend so much of my day looking at a screen that the paper subscription was important when I signed up. I’m just always terrified that if I do everything virtually, that I’ll live a virtual life. For me, the paper is important and I will continue to tread lightly on the earth in other ways.

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I feel like you’ve crystalized many of my fears about news monopolies, the ones I haven’t been able to articulate properly. The “echo chamber” effect is completely spot on.

    Those are some extremely sobering statistics about our fellow writers in print. I’ll definitely be looking into a paper subscription.

  8. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Thank you for writing this! The Sunday paper is always welcome at my door. I love waking up to the thud of the my newspaper on the sidewalk. Reading the paper gives me the opportunity to unplug from all the devices and indulge in pure print. Everything from national news to the local art scene to recipes I’ve turned in to regular dishes in my house are the little gems waiting for me every Sunday morning. I highly recommend it!

  9. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Aaaaah! I disagree with this SO. MUCH. Newspapers are businesses that exist for the sole purpose of making money for its owners (in the case of Advance, owners of the Star Ledger) or shareholders (ie NYTimes). If you truly believe that news is a public go

    • Thumb up 2

      Please log in to vote

      Damn mobile site posting my comment before I was done…

      As I was saying, if you truly believe that news is a public good, which I do, support the nonprofit news organizations in your area, publi radio, NPR and Pro Publica. The news pegs leading the Wendy Davis coverage is a great example of why this is necessary.

      Besides, the whole reason newspapers are in the shape they are is because for much of the 90s and te beginning of the 00s, these corporations sought profits instead of quality and drove themselves into the ditch.

      I grew up in a newspaper family and have seen this industry from every angle. Don’t treat it like a charity.

      • Thumb up 3

        Please log in to vote

        Maybe the owners/publishers see it that way, but every reporter/writer I’ve met was/is doing what they do because they want people to be informed; believe the public has a right to know about what’s going on in the world, etc.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          I totally agree. I’ve been one of those reporters. They do good work, but at the end of the day, that work is a product that is being sold and the profits go to the owners and shareholders and never to the reporters. This article frames subscribing to a newspaper as an altruistic act to support communities and reporters, when it will actually just line the pockets of the Newhouse family, who own Advance and the Star Ledger.

          If you want to subscribe to the Star Ledger because you want to read their news on paper every morning, by all means do it. But don’t do it because you think that’s the only way to support thorough reporting on local issues.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      I will add to this…

      Based on the business model newspapers are working on is based on something that worked well in the 80s and 90s and subscribers aren’t a huge part of that. The move to put news online for free isn’t what decimated the industry; it’s the refusal to put classified ads online in the 90s, so Craig Newmark did it first, and for free. Meanwhile, the consolidation of car dealerships, supermarkets and department stores has also reduced ad revenue. Free online news is just a scapegoat for two decades of bad decision making on their part.

      So again, if you do subscribe to your local paper, know that you aren’t contributing to the bottom line. You’re just paying for the paper the news is printed on. And even if the thousands of subscribers who have left over the last 20 years all came back, the business model is so outdated, it wouldn’t really make a difference.

  10. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    This reminds me of the recent debate in Scotland on independence and about how the pro-independence side have very, very little support from the (usually English owned) local print media so they’ve had to resort to publishing online on websites like Wings over Scotland and Bella Caledonia (which are now read by more people than a lot of newspapers). So, yeah, support local newspapers but first make sure that they really look out for local interests.

  11. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Thank you for this!! I am a reporter for a local newspaper in a suburb of Chicago and our staff works very, very hard at reporting on everything going on here. I’m at every single city council and plan commission meeting here (as well as a lot of school/library/senior center/nature center events). Although our business model is different than other newspapers (we send our newspapers to every home and business in our city for free – it’s supported mostly by advertising, and our website has a paywall), we still want our readers to read our newspaper and know what’s going on in their backyards! Support your local news, y’all!

  12. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Our local newspaper is ultraconservative and is created by people who are out as homophobes, so I don’t think I’ll be subscribing to them. However, there is a local newspaper in Detroit that is run by queer AA and I will fully support them.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.