There was a terrific story on WHYY news’ website last week about the state of newspapers in Montgomery County. And the state of them, you’re probably not surprised to hear, is pretty poor.
The story, reported by WHYY’s Laura Benshoff, focuses on the chain of papers owned by MediaNews Group, which in turn is owned by a hedge fund operation: Alden Global Capital. That company has, Benshoff reports, laid off staff and made significant cuts while hauling in $18 million in profit at its Philadelphia region papers.
Benshoff interviewed a 22-year veteran reporter with the Pottstown Mercury, Evan Brandt, who began covering the Pottstown School Board and now writes three stories a day that are used by papers across the chain’s daily and weekly.
“If I’m going to sweat like this, and work like this, I don’t want it to be for a piece of crap,” Brandt told Benshoff.
You have to feel for Brandt. He’s working harder and doing a good job, but readers of his paper and the papers owned by his employers are getting less.
In addition to a handful of dailies – like the West Chester Daily Local News and the Norristown Times Herald News – MediaNews Group also owns Montgomery Newspapers, which, until recently, published both the Springfield Sun and the Glenside News. Those papers, both serving our nearest suburban neighbors, have been “retired” – their titles relegated to the dust bin. They are no longer in print.
While the titles may still exist in some form online, the paper names are little better than filters for news that may or may not be interesting to the average township resident. A visit this weekend to the Springfield Sun’s landing page is a mix of county news, police briefs and a photo gallery of the Souderton Little League opening day. It’s now common for meetings of township government – what used to be bread and butter for any weekly paper – to go unreported by any news organization.
The folding of both papers in two relatively affluent suburbs in one of the most affluent suburban counties in the United States is a really remarkable problem for citizens everywhere. As Benshoff points out in her story, studies have shown that dwindling newspaper readership has been connected to a wide range of public ills – from declines in civic participation to higher bowering rates for local government.
One study has shown that communities with no news coverage have had the highest increases in the cost of debt and loan service.
While big news organizations like the New York Times have found success online and in print, local media without the ability to scale up at a national level are in real danger. The Local certainly has its fair share of financial hardships, but at least we aren’t owned by a hedge fund operator that’s slashed and burned us into oblivion.
Still, everyone in Chestnut Hill and its suburbs should pay attention to what’s going on in local media. If we wake up one day without it, we’ll all be a lot worse off.