Sunday, March 10, 2019

AP uses paper GateHouse closed as example of troubles of local journalism, but says 'This isn't a hopeless story'

This was the last home of the Waynesville Daily Guide. (AP photo)
"Local journalism is dying in plain sight," David Bauder and David Lieb of The Associated Press write in a story about the decline of local newspapers. It's part of AP's package for Sunshine Week, the annual salute to open government.

The story's central basis is the University of North Carolina's finding that about 1,400 U.S. cities and towns lost newspapers from 2004 through 2015. Most of those were weeklies in suburban areas and non-county-seat towns, especially in areas like the Great Plains that have been losing population. But the story's object example is a county in south-central Missouri that lost its daily paper in September. The example may seem inapt, but is forward-looking, because the Waynesville Daily Guide was closed by GateHouse Media, one of the private-equity firms that have bought hundreds of American newspapers and have a bottom-line focus.

"The death of the Daily Guide raises questions not easily answered, the same ones asked at newspapers big and small across the country," Bauder and Lieb write. "Did GateHouse stop investing because people were less interested in reading the paper? . . . Or did people lose interest because the lack of investment made it a less satisfying read?" A local pastor told AP that he stopped subscribing because “there wasn’t as much information that really made it worthwhile.”

A former publisher said GateHouse “set the Daily Guide up to fail,” but another ex-publisher and the paper's last editor "blame both GateHouse and the community for not supporting the paper. . . . Critics have said GateHouse and some other newspaper companies follow a strategy of aggressive cost-cutting without making significant investments in newsrooms. GateHouse rejects the notion that their motivations are strictly financial, pointing to measures taken in Waynesville and elsewhere to keep news flowing."

Generally, newspaper closures and mergers can be blamed on "revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers or reasons peculiar to given locales for that development," Bauder and Lieb write. "While national outlets worry about a president who calls the press an enemy of the people, many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died of cancer."

“Losing a newspaper is like losing the heartbeat of a town,” Waynesville banker Keith Pritchard told AP, which reports, "The bank routinely checked the Daily Guide’s obituaries to protect against fraud; Pritchard said you’d be surprised by family members who try to clean out the accounts of a recently-deceased relative."

Local police "unanimously express dismay at the loss of a newspaper," AP reports. "Pulaski County Sheriff Jimmy Bench wishes the Daily Guide was there to report on the December death of his 31-year-old son, Ryan, due to a heroin overdose. It would have been better than dealing with whispers and Twitter. . . . Without a newspaper’s reporting, Police Chief Dan Cordova said many in the community are unaware of the extent of the [drug] problem. Useful information, like a spate of robberies in one section of town, goes unreported. Social media is a resource, but Cordova is concerned about not reaching everyone. . . . Coroner Nick Pappas said readers are more suspicious of news releases than they would be of a fully reported news story."

David Woronoff
Near the end of their article, the reporters write, "This isn’t a hopeless story. Dotted across the country are exceptions to the brutal new rule, newspapers that are surviving with creative business plans." They cite the The Pilot of Southern Pines, N.C., which thrives on "revenue raised by side businesses — lifestyle magazines, electronic newsletters, telephone directories, a video production company and a bookstore."

The Pilot's publisher is David Woronoff, who is going into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame next month. The selection committee "felt he set a new standard for community newspapers and earned well-deserved national recognition for excellence,” member Merrill Rose told the Pilot. “That is particularly important in a time when many community newspapers have struggled.”

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