In the local media circles, we’re running out of shoes.
After several weeklies in the Hudson Valley closed or merged, another shoe dropped as the Daily Freeman reports that the Ulster County Press has shuttered its doors. Anyone concerned about the importance of living in a free, democratic society should be alarmed.
The Freeman wrote that the “closing of the Ulster County Press follows that of the Journal Register Company-owned Taconic Press Group last week. The closing of the group’s eight papers, seven of which covered Dutchess County, came a week after the closing of The Independent, a twice-weekly Columbia County newspaper also owned by the Journal Register Company, parent of the Freeman.”
In all seriousness, this is worse that the financial markets meltdown of 2008. Here’s why:
The role of an independent-of-government media was defined by Thomas Jefferson at the founding of this country as a cornerstone of democracy. The basic idea was that newspapers would be a critical part of the checks and balances of democracy by informing citizens and shedding light on important issues of the day. Basically, an informed populace is the fabric of a democratic society.
Of course, over time, newspapers in the U.S. changed and evolved. All had grown into political leanings — right, left and center. But the core tenets of journalism remained consistent even as the op-ed pages touted political positions.
When radio and television entered the picture, many warned of the demise of newspapers. But newspapers thrived because of the expertise of its news gatherers. How many of you reading this now remember television and radio stations reading headlines and citing stories from newspapers? In fact, other “media channels” still rely on what print media does best, which is to gather original content.
But over the past decade, the newspaper industry has faced some incredible headwinds. From overall declining readership to the growth of digital media, newspapers have struggled to remain relevant. Print media has tried to reinvent itself over and over again, but the cold fact is that consumers today want content that is online and they want it for free.
And this is why newspapers are dying. Free online content is not a business model that works for traditional print media.
Simultaneously, there’s been a rise in “citizen journalism” in the form of blogs and websites. Most of these sites aggregate news. There’s little original reporting done. The sites that do break news are few and far between.
So why is this so troublesome? Because without newspapers and the traditional methods of news gathering (sending a reporter to cover town meetings, check the police blotter, meet with the mayor, profile a business, report on a fire, car accident, sporting event, whatever), valuable information will go missing. And without that information, people will be unable to make informed decisions. And this is where our fragile and precious democracy will crack.
As someone who has worked at several newspapers and has given lectures to young journalism students considering making it a career, I would often ask them why? “Why do you want to become a journalist? The pay is lousy. The hours are long. People will rarely praise your work, and when you make a mistake, they will never let you forget it. So why?” I would say.
Over the years, the student responses were always the same: “It’s exciting work! You get to meet interesting people. It’s valuable to society and democracy,” they would say. And I agree, reaffirming my own beliefs in why journalists and print media in particular is important.
So, with that in mind, I would encourage you to not only read newspapers. But to buy them. The Freeman costs 50 cents each day and is full of information. The Kingston Times costs a buck, and is good for a week. It’s a small investment, one that can shore up the foundations of this great country.
— Arthur Zaczkiewicz