Constance Alexander: Now more than ever, local newspapers matter in creating informed communities

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com

 

When my mother was alive, her subscription to the Murray Ledger & Times provided daily reassurance that I, her youngest child, was safe and sound in faraway Kentucky. Mother, a native New Yorker, could not quite fathom how anyone would voluntarily relocate to a state a thousand miles from what had been home for a lifetime, but after a week of the ML&T, Mother was sold on Murray.

“Nothing bad ever happens there,” she said in one of her letters. Even the obituaries had a positive slant, as so many Murrayans who ventured into the next life were well into their 80’s and 90’s. She also enjoyed Dr. Gott’s syndicated column, which dispensed down-to-earth medical advice. He was so convincing in his down-home approach, Mother thought he was actually a local physician.

With last week’s observance of National Newspaper Week, it seemed like a good time to re-visit the state of local new in the eyes of ML&T readers, so I posted a question on Facebook and received a rash of random responses. Not claiming any scientific or statistically valid data, the anecdotal data was thought-provoking enough to report to Main Street readers.

Of the twenty respondents, five were male. As far as age, eight are retired. All but two still live in the area, but one who moved from Murray to New York and then on to Maryland was inspired to share his opinion of the importance of local newspapers. He wrote to sing the praises of Annapolis’s Capital Gazette which, much like the ML&T, keeps him posted on the arts and performing arts, as well as local human interest stories.

“I also read the Washington Post, listen to NPR, and television news, but none of these will tell me about the mayor’s attempt to add a bike lane to Main Street, and the furor that caused because it eliminated thirty-eight parking spaces. You can’t get news like that anywhere else than the local paper,” he added.

When planning a move to Murray, readers like Carolyn Haas and her husband relied on the local paper to get an idea of what the prospective community was like, and what the issues were. They also checked out the hospital, the churches, and the library. “How else can you know about your newest town?”Carolyn wondered.

A world traveler with love of Murray lodged securely in her heart, Gingy Grider has read the Murray Ledger as long as she can remember, even when her family moved with the military. “In Germany, it was not unusual for me to receive 10 copies at any time,” she explained. “I read every word of the 10 papers. It was my connection to home.”

Another fan of the local paper explained it this way: “The Ledger is the only real way to find out what is going on in the community with everything from church news to the yearly spelling bee.”

One of the younger people who answered the call for feedback cited the ML&T’s pay wall, “and overall lack of internet presence” as reasons for not reading it. Another Millennial, on the other hand, loves the paper for news about community events. “It’s how I find out what’s going on where, and who needs some help. I mostly scan through, reading this or that, but I scrutinize Datebook. And your column, of course!” she said.

Several readers claimed to have daily interest in the obituaries. “I continue to subscribe to the local paper only to keep up with the deaths,” one claimed.

More than one person would like to see more investigative reporting of local issues. Associate Professor of Journalism & Mass Communications, Dr. Melony Jones Shemberger said, “The best newspapers are ones that perform their watchdog responsibilities by reporting enterprise and investigative news. The Todd County Standard, a weekly in Elkton, does that well. With a small staff, the paper has been recognized each year for its solid, dogged news reporting.”

“I freelance at times for the Kentucky Press News Service,” Dr. Shemberger continued, “and I get to see some quality journalism by small, local papers across the commonwealth.”

One respondent who will remain unnamed, as will the west Kentucky newspaper she refers to (not the ML&T), admits that her paper is a good source for local information regarding school activities and organizational events. “The obits often help me understand people’s formal and informal connections,” she explained. “But I wish for more investigative reporting and better grammar.”

All that said, Pew Research Center reports that newspapers are now the main source of news for only 26 per cent of Americans, compared to 45 per cent in 2001, and doomsayers predict that printed newspapers will disappear within the next 15.

The old saying, “No news is good news” does not apply to the state of local news coverage today. No news is just that – no news at all. Without accurate local reporting to shed light on the issues and clear the path for better policy and informed decision-making, we operate in the dark.

Now, more than ever, local newspapers matter.

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