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The Keenly Felt Loss of Local Newspapers

When these vital community institutions disappear, there’s a lot that goes with them.
October 29, 2020
The Keenly Felt Loss of Local Newspapers
Newspaper boxes on the Downtown Mall, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2012 (Photo by Hannah Yoest)

During a recent visit to my parents’ house, I stole away our 10-year old son from his doting grandparents to take him on a walk around the neighborhood where I’d grown up. I especially wanted to show him the community basketball court and the maze of trails through the woods where I’d spent thousands of hours with scads of other kids.

Before getting to the dirt road that led to all of the adventures a 1980s adolescent could want, we had to walk through the boring parts of the neighborhood with paved roads and cars. I was amazed by how little things had changed in 30 years. With one exception.

Almost all of the red local-newspaper boxes at the bottom of the driveways were gone.

Just a few decades ago, nearly every house had a subscription for the hard copy of the area’s evening paper. I still remember—from when I filled in for my friend with the paper route—that on one stretch of street, 41 of 45 houses got a paper. Looking back, our neighborhood had diversity in race, income, religion, family structure, and more, but we shared the local paper and its contents.

That paper told us if our high school’s teams had won the day before, what the county council and school board were up to, and what course the Independence Day parade would take. It also gave us reasons to be proud of our community. It highlighted the local Teen of the Week, celebrated an award won by a local restaurant, publicized the donation made by a local business, and showcased the rehabilitation of a local park by a community group.

The paper also helped shape me. Working on the weekly word jumble as a kid and reading columnists as a teen improved my writing. Checking box scores and batting averages and, later, looking through state budget figures and disaggregated school test scores fueled my love of numbers. Tracking national and international events on the front page taught me about history, culture, peace, and war.

The paper also helped make me a member of our community. It made me want to take part in that Independence Day parade, help rehabilitate a park, win Teen of the Week (alas, that wasn’t to be). When a local politician knocked on our door as he was campaigning, I recognized him from articles I’d read in the paper. When a local business got a story in the paper, they would soon frame the article and hang it on their wall. When I played my first night-time varsity soccer game, I saw, pacing the sideline with an actual notepad and pen, the paper’s local-sports reporter whose articles I’d read.

Years later—in hindsight, not enough years later—I ran for the state legislature. Though I was too young, too inexperienced, and too ambitious, this local paper took me seriously. The reporters covering the race always treated me with respect. When I met with the editorial board prior to their endorsements, never once did they condescend to me. They alluded to my need for a little seasoning, but they were always fair. They were even subtly encouraging.

My experience was quite different with the two much larger papers that reported on my district’s race more as an afterthought. Our community was on the outer reaches of their coverage areas. They weren’t as familiar with our issues and politics, and they were less interested in me. In fairness, the reporters were spread too thin; they just had too many races to cover. And when editors from those papers called to interview me before making endorsements—they didn’t have time for in-person meetings—they were curt bordering on antagonistic. Maybe they were testing me. Maybe they were rushed or just having bad days. Whatever the reason, they did not give the impression that they were invested in my community and my personal role in it.

This taught me an important lesson about the link between journalism and proximity—how knowing and being committed to a place and its people fosters certain attitudes and behaviors. My local paper knew the neighborhood where I’d grown up, and they covered my high school’s games. They knew the church where I received my first Communion and got married. Their reporters or editors might run into me at a local business or a high school soccer game. They were an important part of this community, so they had a reason to care about me and my role in it.

A few years later, when I was selected for a prestigious fellowship and got a job at the White House, I was gratified but not entirely surprised when the paper published a short, front-page story. Then, almost a decade after that, when I was nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state senate for an important state-level position, I shared the news with the paper’s former top editor, even though he’d retired years earlier. I still thought of him as part of the community.

Given how that local paper had shaped me in so many important ways, I should have found time to thank the editorial page editor who had treated me charitably during my campaign, the sports writer who covered high school and college games, the columnist who wrote weekly Teen of the Week stories. But I never got the chance.

They were three of the five journalists who were senselessly murdered in their newsroom in 2018.

My local paper was the Annapolis Capital.

In the days and weeks that followed the attack, there was an outpouring of support for the Capital from far and wide—from journalists who saw this as an assault on a free press, citizens worried that our polarized public square was now turning violent, those concerned about guns and mental health, those who mourned the loss of innocent lives.

Locally, the tragedy was also felt in another way: Our community institution had been attacked. People whom we knew and cared about—people who knew and cared about us—had been targeted. Folks brought candles and flowers and pictures to the site of the crime. I drove our three kids past the crowds holding vigil so I could try to explain in a somber but non-frightening way that something terrible had happened here and that lots of people had come to show their love and respect. The community had gathered in that place on that day to build makeshift memorials in the place where its newspaper had gathered daily to build community.

And now, that newspaper no longer has a place. This summer, its parent company announced that the newsroom of the Capital would be shuttered. The staff that had withered in size over recent years, the staff that had won a Pulitzer for its reporting after the attack upon it, would no longer have a physical home. A barebones team would work remotely.

Local newspapers have been hit hard by changes in technology and media consumption. Over the last 15 years, more than a quarter of the nation’s newspapers and half of local journalists disappeared. As Michael Hendrix has argued, there is evidence that the loss of local news can adversely influence local government, including in areas such as crime, public finance, partisanship, and public participation.

Often, when I hear or read journalists lamenting the crisis of disappearing local newspapers, they focus on how reporters and editors hold government accountable. They discuss their longform investigative reports and their high-profile exposés. Often, their left-leaning politics come out. They see journalism as the pursuit of social justice—comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

But it seems to me that this account buries the lede. For every one major scandal uncovered by a local paper, there are probably thousands of small articles about the good things in our lives. For each alarming revelation that gives us reason to be more cynical and to trust our leaders and neighbors less, there are thousands that give us reason to be proud of and feel rooted in our community.

Because of this, local papers also have a profound but underappreciated political influence—one that has virtually nothing to do with Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive. They direct our attention closer to home. As such, we have reason to think in terms of the people we know, and we focus on the issues that influence us and that we can influence. We behave more civilly; those with whom we disagree are our neighbors, not avatars on a screen. We look for solutions, not sound bites; we are interested in addressing problems, not scoring political points. We engage in practical discussions, not conspiracy theories; the actors in our most important social matters are real people we see at the store, not nameless, faceless power brokers far, far away. In short, local papers help us have a healthy relationship with collective life.

There is no local paper to speak of where I live now. I have a hard time knowing what happened at the recent meetings of our county commissioners and school board. I don’t know which businesses are giving to which charities or which clubs are looking for volunteers. I don’t know if there is a Teen of the Week. I don’t know if there is an ambitious, civic-minded, local twentysomething desperate to prove herself—someone who can, with a little seasoning, contribute mightily to our community. I’d like to root for her and follow her career, even lend her a hand.

And so my attention gravitates to national politics with all of its dysfunction. My blood pressure rises, and I feel powerless to change such huge, distant matters. I wish I could talk to a neighbor about some local issue or event, but we don’t have the same reference points. I don’t know if the high school’s soccer teams played last night or if there’s money in the county budget to expand the trail. Maybe I can go online to find a community of people I’ve never met who have some shared interests. . .

When my son and I got to the dirt road, my heart sank. It was no longer a dirt road—no longer a well-worn path to adventure. Grass and weeds had taken over the landscape. It looked like no one had walked this way in years. Worse, the community basketball court had crumbled into disrepair: The fence was ripped, the pavement was cracked and littered, and one of the hoops was gone. The trails in the woods had disappeared too. They were totally grown over from disuse.

Not all that long ago, all of these were—like the newsroom of the Capital—physical representations of community. More than symbols, they were actual places that had actual people engaged in the actual activities of communal life.

I suppose it’s possible that the neighborhood’s kids had found other places to get together. But if their parents hadn’t found a replacement for their neighbor-gathering newspaper, I’m not sure why I’d expect that. The kids were probably home alone, looking for community online, as well.

Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and previously served as an aide at the White House Domestic Policy Council and president of Maryland’s state board of education.