When The Local Paper Closes, Where Does The Community Turn?
When Betsy Freeman moved to Damascus, Md., 30 years ago, the first thing she looked for was a local community newspaper.
Along with meeting her new neighbors, Freeman met the Gazette.
"The Gazette papers were the thing that really welcomed you into the community," she says.
She's now mourning the loss of the Montgomery and Prince George's county Gazettes, which closed their doors last week after more than 55 years.
But what is it like to live in a community when your favorite paper shuts down?
"You lose that individual feel that our town matters," Freeman says. "There are activities in our town that nobody can really convey to each other anymore when you lose that vehicle for getting the news out."
The Gazette papers were owned by Post Community Media, part of the Washington Post Co., which sold off several publications in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. The two Maryland Gazettes are the only papers among the group that are closing. Post Community Media said the Gazettes' close proximity to "strong major metro papers" was a critical factor in the suburban papers' demise. Some major metro papers near the Gazettes include the Baltimore Sun, and of course, The Washington Post.
"You've got an awful lot of people in Maryland who relied on those papers," Nicholas Benton says. He is the owner and editor in chief of the Falls Church News-Press, a weekly newspaper in Northern Virginia. "The Post basically deserted them."
The Gazette papers were casualties in an ongoing struggle to figure out how to keep print media viable. The shutdown means the loss of 69 jobs but it will also affect the readers who got the paper delivered every week.
Without these papers, readers go through a massive withdrawal, says Tonda Rush, chief executive officer of the National Newspaper Association. Not just in Maryland, but all around the country.
The association aims to protect community newspapers and has been doing so for 130 years. The majority of the papers involved are family owned, and Rush says that local papers run into trouble when they get purchased by a larger company, like the Gazette was in 1993. Even when demand for the paper is high, it can still be shut down.
People who have learned to count on that newspaper find themselves frustrated and worried about if they're involved in civic life, or if their community will be held together.
"People who have learned to count on that newspaper find themselves frustrated and worried about if they're involved in civic life, or if their community will be held together," Rush says.
The loss of the printed local paper doesn't necessarily signify the death of local news, says Jesse Holcomb, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. In a recent study of three cities, Pew found that residents most often turn to their local television station instead of their local newspaper.
"Into the near future, as long as the television business model remains stable, it will continue to be an important source of local news," Holcomb says.
Digital-only outlets are also pursuing local news. Last year, Pew counted nearly 500 digital news startups that launched within the past decade, many of which are local outlets. But these aren't exempt from the difficult news climates that have killed local papers.
"Many of these are fragile operations," Holcomb says. Patch.com, for example, is a hyper local-focused digital journalism experiment that has made so many cuts that more than half of the people it employed have lost their jobs.
And sometimes, instead of a newsroom full of reporters working at computers, local news can be as simple as just one person creating a Facebook page. That's what Betsy Freeman did a couple of years ago when the Gazette slowed coverage of Damascus.
The group — Damascus, Maryland — is where she started sharing news and information about the goings-on of her community. She calls the page a "town center," where more than 3,000 members share information about school sporting events, town parades or which plumbers they like. Sometimes there are posts about traffic accidents, and people check so often that they use the information to take a different way home, Freeman says.
But it's not the Gazette, she says. Losing the paper is an incredibly emotional loss, Freeman adds; people won't have a copy of their graduation announcement or their wedding announcements that they can save or send to relatives.
"The Gazette always made you feel like you were sort of tied together," Freeman says. Now she and her community are left to search for a common thread.
Paige Pfleger is an intern with NPR Digital News.
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