A few years ago, there was a brief period of time during which I left journalism as a full-time vocation.
While I still dabbled in freelance, the economic landscape was untenable for a soon-to-be first-time father with a mortgage and other “adult” responsibilities.
Seeking kindred spirits, I joined a support group of sorts on Facebook called “What’s Your Plan B?” The group was filled with former journalists who had pursued careers in other fields, current journalists — both employed and unemployed — assessing their situations and options, true die-hards who would never leave the life, and even some employers hoping to entice those who had left the industry for greener pastures to return.
Even upon returning to journalism, I have remained part of this group. Many members are seasoned professionals eager to impart wisdom and I have continued to benefit from that. Sometimes it is just interesting to “people watch” and see where the paths of former colleagues have taken them. Most of all, I appreciate the perspective it has provided me on the state of not just my industry but accessibility of information and its consumption in our country.
Scrolling through this group recently, I came across a post that truly shook me.
An editor, approximately my age, explained he and his staff (of one) had recently been laid off from his publication, which had been in existence for more than 150 years. I felt for him, but that’s a familiar tale, especially in this group.
The truly shocking revelation was when he said prior to his termination, he was the last full-time editorial employee in the county. Not the town — the county. And a county with 11 separate school districts, at that. The parent company intended to continue producing the paper, but would do so remotely from their headquarters 45 minutes away. Needless to say, his concern regarding the quality of the local reporting feels well-founded.
To his credit, this editor was working to establish his own independent news source in hopes of not only maintaining his livelihood but also the flow of information to the public. One of his struggles in doing so, however, was the fact that, being a rural area without reliable internet service, the need for a print product was essential and the rates for newsprint are proving cost-prohibitive.
The obvious questions that came to my mind were, without dedicated local coverage and the absence of what feels like a basic necessity in internet, how are the citizens of this area going to remain informed? What impact will this have on elections? On schools? On engagement with local government and their decision-making?
Now, this isn’t meant to be a “Hey, look at us! We’ve got 13 local papers with a staff of 14 full-time reporters and editors” kind of column. (But while we’re all here, hey, look at us! We’ve got 13 local papers with a staff of 14 full-time reporters and editors!)
We are fortunate in our area to have diversity in our informational options, especially compared to some parts of the country. The constriction and consolidation of local news operations, especially print, nationwide is a very sad reality that has real ramifications, and, well, our area has not been completely immune to it. We have sadly seen the owners of one longstanding, respected daily newspaper sell off its building to developers while shuttering another of its dailies and consolidating its workforce. Frankly, buyouts and departures have become commonplace at outlets throughout the region.
As the coverage of important local topics dwindles in our communities, how is the public to remain informed? Social media? I shudder at the thought.
While they have become entrenched in many of our daily lives, these platforms stand in this strange place. Much of the content on these forums is slanted, misinformed, or just flat-out designed to mislead. Moreover, user agreements place the ultimate determination of acceptability and truth in the hands often of computer-automated moderators. They are not beacons of free speech, nor were they intended to be. They’re also not sources of truth — again, it’s not their intended function.
And it isn’t exactly as if direct engagement in local government or organizations is at an all-time high. People complain or make assumptions but rarely participate.
So what’s our societal “Plan B” if local journalism falters? The fact of the matter is that there isn’t a clear one.
Local reporting provides what social media tomfoolery and the rumor mill do not. Unfortunately for many, the access to it throughout our country is foundering and the impacts of an ill-informed society will be realized by our children. Searching for truth shouldn’t be so hard for so many.