Breaking News: Read your Local Newspaper

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Nate Taylor

Larger papers overshadow local ones and, in response, many local papers end up disappearing or becoming what is known as “ghost newspapers:” publications whose staff is so small that it becomes nearly impossible to publish articles regularly.

By Charlotte Cao, Portola High School

Tucked into the corner of my bedroom is a bookshelf engulfed by a pile of newspapers. The heady scent of fresh ink has worn off. Their slightly-perforated edges have curled, despite careful handling. 

Over the course of the past three years, I have collected all of the print issues that the Portola Pilot has published, and, occasionally, I will wrangle one paper out from the pile and flip through to pause and pore over an article or two. I am met with quotes from familiar faces, I am reminded of the news that shaped our city, and I am joyful upon seeing my community represented.

All of this is why it pains me to admit that journalism is a dying art.

Local newspapers are the ones suffering the most. In 2018, all 11 newspapers registered under the Southern California News Group, including the Orange County Register, were experiencing rapidly-declining revenues, according to the Los Angeles Times. In response, the SCNG — whose employees numbered a mere 315 — was forced to lay off journalists from every section, from news to sports.

To claim that such a phenomenon is limited to the SCNG would be wishful thinking. The Pew Research Center reports that newsroom employment plummeted from 114,000 employees to 85,000 between 2008 and 2020, and according to a 2018 study titled “The Expanding News Desert,” almost 1,800 newspapers have become defunct due to economic instability. 

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this precarious issue, resulting in smaller print runs and the closing of 90 publications in the United States, according to the Guardian and Time.

More recently, in 2020, the SCNG furloughed about 50 employees, specifically those involved in features or sports writing.

“Everyone is livid,” an anonymous SCNG employee said in an interview with journalism platform LAist. “Some of our entertainment staff feel discarded. They did as much work, if not more, than the rest of the newsroom over the last month. They had to cover the total collapse of the entertainment industry — event cancellations, theme parks closing, casinos shuttering, all of that stuff. And then management turns around and does this to them.”

Journalists and the papers they work for alike are being discarded: a reality that is as dangerous for the public as it is for the employees. 

With the loss of local newspapers comes the underrepresentation of the area’s citizens. 

The purpose of journalism is to provide a platform for discourse and compromise, and to present stories representative of the community being served, according to the American Press Institute. However, if such newspapers disappear, then there will be no local coverage, rendering the opinions and issues of the people living in the area “invisible.”

After all, how can you fix a problem, celebrate an achievement or debate a controversy that nobody is aware of because it goes unpublicized?

The elimination of newspapers and thus the creation of news deserts will force Americans to turn to national news organizations — which, as Pew Research Center reports, are trusted about 17% less than local news organizations —  or the more pervasive social media. 

According to a report by Penny Abernathy, a Knight Chair at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, community members that rely on social media instead of their local papers are more likely to fall victim to “fake news.” This phenomena explains the rise in political polarization and the decline of civic engagement that is correlated with a loss of local coverage.

Currently, more efforts are being made to protect local newspapers; the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, the most recent and notable piece of legislation, was introduced to the House of the Representatives in July 2021. Some provisions mentioned under this bill state that consumers would be offered tax credits to subscribe to a local paper or donate to a nonprofit news organization. 

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act has garnered bi-partisan support, but it has its problems; according to Nieman Lab, individuals living in more rural areas are less likely to be able to afford a subscription, and many newspapers are owned by hedge funds, meaning that money is not necessarily benefiting local papers. 

Though this bill does help alleviate the financial burden many papers are facing, if the public wants to prevent more local papers from being bought out or disappearing completely, they must be the ones taking initiative.

Any contribution, whether it be through a subscription or a donation, would add up and assist in keeping local news afloat. The OC Register, in particular, has a subscription service that costs $14 a month for unlimited print and online access; this amounts to a little more than 40 cents a day. 

But it is far from the only step that can be taken. The public has an obligation to protect their local news organizations, and the easiest way to do so is to engage with their content. Read their articles. Send a letter to the editor. Reach out to journalists if there is an event within the community that deserves coverage. 

Local press without an audience is worth nothing.

And though I love larger publications like the Los Angeles Times as much as anyone, I also know that it is not the Orange County Register or the Portola Pilot. And it never will be. Because nobody could tell our stories with as much authenticity, with as much passion, as our local papers can. 

This story was originally published on Portola Pilot on December 8, 2021.