A front page article in last week’s Local about the latest CHCA board meeting contained comments by board members Richard Snowden and Elizabeth Bales that have awakened a silent majority in Chestnut Hill and nearby communities that is no longer silent. As this is being written, we have received more than 40 letters from area residents about the incendiary comments as well as countless phone calls and comments from the friends of staff members. Nothing the Local has published has provoked anything close to this response for many years.
At the board meeting, members of the Budget and Finance Committee were discussing whether to approve a new budget for the Local that contains an allocation for new investment. According to the article, Snowden, the biggest owner of commercial properties in Chestnut Hill, said that the content of the Local was “primarily negative.”
“Our local newspaper is a failure,” he stated. “I am not going to vote in favor of what is a content rat hole.”
Bales added, “The ad revenue is not forthcoming because the content doesn’t reflect what advertisers want to see.”
As a result, instead of approving a budget for the Local, the meeting adjourned with a “continuing resolution” that will allow the Local to continue operating at current budget levels for three months while a subcommittee works to assess the strategic future of the Local and report back to the board.
Ironically, near the end of the article about the postponed budget was another article about the Local staff winning four Keystone Press Awards for excellence from the Pennsylvania News Media Association among all weekly newspapers in the state with a circulation between 5,000 and 9,999. Two of the honors were first-place awards – for best feature article and best series. Last year the Local won three such awards, and the paper has won numerous other journalism awards in recent years.
The comment by Snowden that the paper’s coverage has been “primarily negative” is stupefying in its Alice-in-Wonderland approach to reality. Last week’s issue contained 27 articles, and the only segment that could remotely be considered “negative” by any rational person were the comments by Snowden and Bales. We do run a weekly crime report (it was one column wide and five inches long last week), but these are one-paragraph blurbs from the 14th Police District with no photos, headlines or editorial embellishment.
If anything, some readers have said that much of the Local’s coverage is “fluffy,” full of praise for local teenagers, nonprofits, schools, sports teams, community organizations, businesses, etc. We are anxious to hear from Snowden and Bales as to specific examples of “negative” coverage because we have not been able to find any.
As for the allegation by Bales that the Local’s “content doesn’t reflect what advertisers want to see,” we would like to know what advertisers she is referring to and what it is that they want to see. We do articles about new businesses in the community and other stories when businesses make news. But the CHCA’s own bylaws state clearly that the Local must be an independent journalistic entity run according to the same principles that govern the nation’s most esteemed news organizations. As several readers pointed out in this week’s letters, we are not a public relations firm or a newsletter whose only purpose is to promote the organization that owns it.
As for the argument that advertising and circulation have declined, welcome to 2014! There is probably no newspaper in the country, large or small, about which the same thing cannot be said. There was an invention 25 years ago called the Internet that accelerated this decline, which began with the widespread availability of radio about a century ago and continued with the arrival of movies and television.
Just 10 or 15 years ago, if you took a train to center city, you would see several passengers reading a newspaper. Now you might see none. Instead, you see those same passengers looking into a tiny screen, sending text messages, etc. Just 10 or 15 years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a daily circulation of about 400,000. Now it is half of that or less.
The Philadelphia Weekly and City Paper were each well over 100 pages on average – now they average about 40. The Patch online news operation has laid off hundreds of employees; Newsworks, Channel 12’s online newspaper, has scaled way back; Life on the Hill, our area’s small monthly magazine, recently ceased operations, and on and on. By comparison, the Local has fared reasonably well, and we believe there is still a place for a community newspaper that reports hyper-local news that you cannot find on the Internet about local kids’ sports teams, local unsung heroes, etc.
But it is difficult to maintain staff morale when vocal representatives of the organization that owns this newspaper insist we are producing a “content rat hole” and that the paper should be a “mouthpiece” for the owners.
We have not had a raise in years, and the organization’s contribution to our 401-K accounts also ended years ago. Even so, we keep showing up for work and trying our best to put out a newspaper that we and the rest of the community can be proud of.
We believe we are doing that.
The Editorial Staff