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Are papers obsolete?

The Millerton News Editorial

The Associated Press (AP) published a frightening article — at least to this editor — on Thursday, June 30, about a recent study conducted by the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications.

The Journalism School, or “J School,” as many of us used to say back when studying at Journalism School in college, revealed on Wednesday, June 29, that newspapers are shutting down at a rate of two per week across the United States — and that’s with most citizens being fully aware of the problem.

At the end of this May, according to the study, there were 6,377 newspapers, down from 8,891 in 2005. That’s a loss of 2,514 in 17 years. That’s almost 150 papers gone per year during that time — a pretty scary statistic.

The AP article stated that “While the pandemic didn’t quite cause the reckoning that some in the industry feared, 360 newspapers have shut down since the end of 2019, all but 24 of them weeklies serving small communities.”

The Millerton News, the very newspaper you are reading at this very moment, is a local weekly nonprofit newspaper “serving small communities” in the northeastern Dutchess County and southern Columbia County region of the Harlem Valley. We shudder to imagine that one day we, too, could face such a fate.

The study also found that roughly 75,000 journalists who worked at newspapers in 2006 no longer do so. Today, only 31,000 journalists are employed at such papers, according to Northwestern. That’s a loss of 44,000 jobs in 16 years. Pretty staggering numbers, especially when one takes into account that annual newspaper revenue dropped by more than half during that same time frame, from $50 billion to $21 billion.

Also discovered by the J School, to little surprise, is that parts of the country with no reliable local news sources are often poorer, older and less educated than sections of the country that are well covered.

The AP said yes, more philanthropists and politicians have been “paying attention to the issues,” but added that’s not making much of a dent in providing solutions, as the problems that led to the breakdown of the industry’s advertising model remain the same.

“‘Encouraging growth in the digital-only news sector in recent years hasn’t been enough to compensate for the overall trends,’ said Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Medill and the report’s principal author,” wrote AP reporter David Bauder.

In his piece, Bauder also wrote that “news deserts are growing.”

The report from Northwestern estimates roughly 70 million Americans live somewhere in the world that either have no local news available or only one news source available. Whether that one source is reliable, one can only wonder. That, as we all know, is sorely inadequate and can lead to a misinformed public.

Abernathy summed up the issue succinctly at the end of the AP article. What’s at stake, she said, is not only “our own democracy,” but “our social and societal cohesion.” A world without local, community news would not only be much darker and more frightening than we could all ever begin to imagine, it would also allow governments and all of those in power to be less transparent in how they operate.

Let’s hope it never comes to that.

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