MCCC Voices | There is no replacement for a strong, well-staffed local newspaper

·4 min read
Matthew Bird-Meyer
Matthew Bird-Meyer

You work hard. I see you. Every day, there you are. Well, maybe not on Saturdays any longer. But I see you.

I must admit, I am a little surprised to see you still slugging it out every day. When GateHouse Media gobbled up Gannett in 2019, I assumed the worst. Massive mergers sometimes mean layoffs, cutbacks and even closures. Newsroom staffs tend to suffer the worst, forcing already decimated newspapers to do even more with even less.

But Monroe News, you persist.

It’s amazing. And as a downtown Monroe resident, I’m extremely grateful for your work.

At the time of the GateHouse/Gannett merger, the New York Times reported that one in five daily newspapers in America now feature the name Gannett in their mastheads.

That’s a worrisome fact. Fewer owners mean fewer voices.

Google “Freedom Forum front pages” to see what I’m talking about. It won’t take you long to find front pages that look alike, not only in design but with the same photos, same headlines and same stories.

But that’s not the case in Monroe. Every day, even with such a small staff, the front page of our local paper features all original, local content.

This is admirable, especially at a time when news deserts continue to expand across the country. A news desert is a region that lacks local news coverage as newspapers close or merge.

Some 1,800 newspapers in the U.S. have closed since 2004, according to research by UNC’s School of Media and Journalism. That leaves roughly 200 counties out of about 3,100 nationwide without a newspaper — weekly or daily.

And according to Pew Research Center, there are fewer people doing journalism. About 114,000 reporters, editors, photographers and videographers worked in newsrooms in 2008. By 2020, that number shrank to 85,000.

The pandemic certainly did a number on the business of journalism. But the decline has been ongoing for decades. Digital platforms continue to take more advertising revenue from legacy media. And readers are losing confidence in the news media as echo chambers expand via punditry on cable television.

A small group of lawmakers responded to this crisis. With bipartisan support, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act was introduced in the House and Senate in 2021. This would allow news publishers to collectively negotiate with digital platforms like Google and Facebook.

Unfortunately, this bill appears to be going nowhere.

In the meantime, there are some bright spots out there. Nonprofit online-only newsrooms continue to pop up across the country. Report for America helps place journalists in local newsrooms.

And college students are doing their part. The Pew Research Center reports that student journalists account for about 1-in-10 state capitol reporters in the U.S. In Michigan, the share of student statehouse reporters is 17%.

The New York Times published a story in 2019 that touched on how the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, The Michigan Daily, had been the only daily newspaper in Ann Arbor for more than a decade.

Here at MCCC, the Agora is helping to train the next generation of journalists. It might be a scary moment in time for the business of journalism, but it’s also an extremely exciting time filled with opportunities to do good, important work.

New, innovative ideas continue to emerge. Outlier Media, for example, started in 2016 in Detroit, practicing “service journalism.” Their reporters push out information via text messages to subscribers.

The Documenters Network was established in 2018 by City Bureau, a nonprofit civic journalism lab based in Chicago. The group trains people to document public meetings in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Minneapolis. Their database is full of independently gathered records on what transpired at all sorts of public meetings, from park boards and school boards to finance committees and city councils.

But there’s no replacement for a strong, well-staffed local newspaper.

How else are we going to learn about muskrat dinners, concerts at St. Mary’s Park and amendments to the tax increment financing and development plan for Monroe’s Downtown Development Authority district?

Newspapers don’t like to talk about themselves. But I will. I see you, Monroe News, and the hard work you do every day.

Matthew Bird-Meyer is professor of journalism at Monroe County Community College. He can be reached at mbird-meyer@monroeccc.edu.

This article originally appeared on The Monroe News: MCCC Voices: No replacement for strong, well-staffed local newspaper