Not too long ago, an obituary for the death of my local newspaper arrived on my doorstep. The Gazette of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland printed its last edition last week after over a half-century of reporting community news. Ironically, its first publisher also died this month, at the age of 92.
This is sad on many levels. For one, it is going to be hard to fill the gaping hole left by an old-fashioned but newsworthy publication that informed citizens about community events, local developments and neighborhood stories. On a national level, it doesn't bode well for the state of media in America.
The Gazette joins a long list of local community newspapers succumbing to the financial realities of declining advertising revenues in a digital age. Yes, we have plenty of media sites, mobile devices, online stories and sources of global news. But that is not the same as local reporting and good old American local journalism that gives people a window onto their community lives.
So what can we do about it?
In a new report, Steven Waldman — a journalist, entrepreneur, government bureaucrat, digital content pioneer and advocate for robust accountability journalism — offers up a new idea to address the slow death of local news: He recommends using the model of American community service programs such as AmeriCorps, City Year and Teach for America to reinvigorate community-based journalism. Waldman's idea, "Report for America," was unveiled at Montclair State University (N.J.) at an ENGAGE Local Conference sponsored by the school's Center for Cooperative Media.
Waldman, an online entrepreneur himself, is calling for more philanthropic support for local journalism and for the reporters who carry it out around the country. He envisions a national nonprofit entity that would essentially underwrite the salaries to support local coverage of schools, healthcare, municipal government and all the issues that affect ordinary citizens. (Waldman is careful not to promote advocacy reporting with an inherent bias, as he notes: "That's not to say journalists should become civic boosters. Often the best way to serve a community is to turn over the rocks and look in the shadow.")
Waldman's idea of getting nongovernmental organizations to put their money into community news is a good one. Citizens who are informed about their community are better equipped to participate in the life of the community and the health and well-being of residents. It is also a way to serve underserved community with news and information.
But Waldman's recommendation implies that someone or some organization will step up to the plate — which is a tall order. And it implies that Americans believe that the right to information is as valuable as every other right. Sadly, according to a Pew report, only 28 percent of Americans believe journalists contribute "a lot" to society's well-being, compared to 73 percent for teachers and 65 percent for scientists.
Still, Waldman's idea is worth further study. A community service-based model for saving local journalism could reverse the tide, although it won't ensure that your local newspaper still arrives at your doorstep or in your driveway.
For those mourning the loss of news you can actually hold in your hand, there are some positive parts of this story. One piece of good news is that newspapers are not completely out of vogue. Despite widespread talk of a shift to digital, most newspaper readership continues to be in print. According to readership data from Nielsen Scarborough's 2014 Newspaper Penetration Report, 56 percent of those who consume a newspaper read it exclusively in print; 11 percent, in addition to print, also read it on desktop or laptop computers; 5 percent use both print and mobile devices; and 11 percent use all three, reading in print, on desktops and via mobile devices. In total, more than eight in 10 of those who read a newspaper do so in print, at least sometimes. Only 5 percent read newspapers exclusively on mobile devices.
Yes, mobile phones and news apps are certainly the hot property in journalism today, and there is no turning back. We should celebrate the access to information for those who have a computer or cellular device. But we don't need to throw the baby newspaper out with the mobile bathwater. At a minimum, we need to retain journalism jobs for editors, printers and investigative reporters. And we need good journalists to have good societies.
Information is the oxygen with which societies breathe. Without good journalists, sharp editors, and honest reporting, we are left wondering whom and what to believe and the credibility gap will only grow larger. So let's keep our minds open and investigate all options — including strengthening local reporting and, dare I say, keeping the local newspapers on our tables!
Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She is a frequent contributor to TheHill.com and others news outlets.