Thursday, October 23, 2008

Goodbye, local paper

I live in a town where people take — not subscribe to — the local newspaper. But after twenty-five years, I can no longer take it.

Our paper has never been very good, but it was until recently at least dependably mediocre. When I first began taking the paper, it was something of a print version of UHF television: a reliable source of strange and fleeting entertainments. Colorful personalities shared the streams of their consciousness in weekly columns, several of which became the stuff of tipsy reading with friends on New Year's Eve. The religion page featured helpful explanations of why all but a few readers would be going to hell. The paper was never big on reporting, investigative or otherwise: when a local state employee constructed a small palace of nepotism at taxpayers' expense, it was the college paper that told the story, in articles by an ace student-journalist (who has since established a national reputation). The local paper followed that student's lead, usually publishing the scandal's latest developments a day later. I long ago learned not to rely upon the local paper for much in the way of reporting on local reality.

In the past year or so though, our paper has begun a sharp and almost certainly irreversible decline. There is less local reporting than ever, with whole pages turning into press releases ("Chiropractor Honored") and photographs of people holding checks ("Wal-Mart Makes Donation"). With early voting having begun in Illinois, the paper has offered not one article detailing the positions of candidates in local elections. Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore have disappeared from the editorial page, so that the paper's writers must digress and meander and pad to get the columns that they are writing to have enough words and be long enough to reach the bottom of the page and not leave empty space with nothing to fill it, which would be a problem and not look good. Photographs and headlines have grown larger, and the comics page has become a travesty of layout, with some strips arbitrarily enlarged, as the paper pays for fewer and fewer comics. Frequent full-page displays proclaiming the relevance and well-being of newspapers are reminders that there is no there there — no articles, no advertising.

And faced with declining revenue, our paper seems to have made a play for what it imagines to be its base, shading its selection of Associated Press articles with increasing obviousness. Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention received no coverage, while Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at the Republican convention received a front-page article, followed by a long personality piece with an extra-large photo of the governor, her husband, and their youngest child. This selective representation of reality has continued: a reader who depends on the paper alone for news would not know about John McCain's melodramatic campaign suspension. Nor would that reader know that polls of independent voters have given all three debates to Barack Obama. In August, the publisher gave press credentials to a non-journalist friend, who went to the Democratic convention to provide a Republican perspective on events. And still, no coverage of Obama's acceptance speech, or of much else from the convention. (In case it doesn't go without saying: there was no paper-sponsored Democratic observer at the Republican convention. And a friendship with a non-journalist offering a "Republican perspective" is exactly what the publisher acknowledged in a brief printed statement — to avoid, he said, any accusation of bias.)

But the worst move the paper has made is to "go interactive," with articles, editorials, and letters to the editor now online as bait to draw comments (pseudonymous or otherwise) and thus increase page hits and ad revenue. The result is ugly, very ugly, with anonymous attacks (from all quarters), name-calling (from all quarters), and thinly disguised displays of racism. While the paper claims to moderate comments, there's little evidence that it does so. One bright spot, sort of: with local news, one can often learn more from comments (what used to be called "town-talk") than from the articles to which they're appended.

So after twenty-three years, I'm out. I'll read obituaries and reports on City Council meetings online and follow all other usual sources for news and analysis (and comics). Goodbye, local paper.

comments: 2

your daughter rachel said...

I don't think the comics are enlarged arbitrarily; they probably enlarge the ones they find funniest. That would explain why "The Dinette Set" has an entire half page.

Michael Leddy said...

That's my daughter. : )