In the newspaper biz these days, to say we open up forwarded e-mails from our colleagues with trepidation is an understatement. There’s always the chance that the next one you click on will bring with it the news that the entire industry has collapsed in a cloud of dust and tumbleweeds.
In the newspaper biz these days, to say we open up forwarded e-mails from our colleagues with trepidation is an understatement. There’s always the chance that the next one you click on will bring with it the news that the entire industry has collapsed in a cloud of dust and tumbleweeds, and we should all just pack up our AP Style Manuals and head home.
And sure enough, I got one last week that hit me particularly hard: Turns out the community weekly that covered my childhood hometown of Carmel, N.Y., had closed for good, a victim of the Journal Register Company’s recent bankruptcy.
The Putnam County Courier was pretty much the only paper that had any idea of what the people there were up to — the local daily, at least when I lived there, seemed to consider us a quaint little extension of Westchester that was only really worth dipping into if someone was lucky enough to get run over by the Metro North train on its way to New York City.
Granted, when flipping through it as a kid I couldn’t find much of interest — it was all about taxes and the school board, and stories about students who weren’t me who’d won awards. You know, stuff old people cared about. And they were all by the same reporter, a guy named Eric Gross who wrote during the off hours from his job as a speech teacher for our local school district. Say what you want about the man’s reporting, but he had excellent diction.
When the paper closed earlier this month, Eric Gross was still there, having worked for it for 44 years; the paper had been publishing for 168.
I was tangentially involved with it for two of those years, when I was editor of my high school paper and the Courier published it. I had to bring the pasted-up boards in to the Courier office to finish the production process, and to this day I don’t know what I could have seen there that possibly made me want to go into this line of work. For one thing, it was cramped and dimly lit, and everything was covered with wax. (It’s true: Back then melted wax, to stick the articles onto the boards, was the single most important ingredient that went into a newspaper, other than ink. These days, of course, the wax is all digital.)
Still, something inspired me to eventually pursue a career in community journalism, even if at first I assumed it would just be a pit stop on my way to bigger and better things. Then a funny thing happened: I got married and had kids and bought a house, and realized that what community journalists do — namely, keep people informed about the things that are important to them when they get home at night — was actually pretty important work.
I stuck it out, and so far the newspapers I work on have done the same. But there are fewer journalists doing that work now that the Courier is gone. And I hear the people of Carmel, denied their weekly compilation of town board updates, school lunch menus, letters from neighbors and high school sports scores — and the rest of the things the regional daily wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot broadsheet — aren’t happy about it.
“I had just renewed,” my mother told me this week. “Everybody’s talking about it. No one else covered the local news.”
I’m tempted to wonder if the paper would still have gone the way of the dodo if everybody who will miss the paper and others like it had spent the last few years actually buying them. In the Courier’s case, maybe its parent company’s massive debt meant there was no way to save it. But no matter what, there’s a big gap to fill now that it’s gone.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to the newspaper business, but I do know that people want their local news, at least if the phone calls we get when we leave some of it out are any indication. Maybe in the future the news will all be beamed directly into our iPhones (or spinal columns), if we can keep enough people employed to gather it until then.
But who knows? Maybe back in Carmel, some daring individual — someone who cares a lot about local news and not so much (at all?) about making money — will start up something to take the Courier’s place, something that preferably comes on paper and is delivered to your door, so the town boards and award-winning kids will find themselves covered again, and maybe even up on a few refrigerators.
It’s either that, or they’ll have to jump in front of the next train.
Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/pchianca. To receive At Large by e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”