It’s sad what has happened to our newspapers

I read Ken Bradford’s post titled “Gannett doesn’t care what happens in your neighborhood”  and certainly could relate. Although I never worked for the South Bend Tribune, I’ve had an almost 50-year on-and-off connection to it. As a result, I developed a life-long passion for local print journalism.

When my family moved to South Bend in the 1960s, we subscribed to the South Bend Tribune. Everybody we knew subscribed. In elementary and middle school I shared a newspaper route with a neighborhood boy. This was back in the days of afternoon delivery. On four city blocks, almost every house took the paper (about 100 subscribers).

 As a part of the our job, we also had to go door to door every so often to collect payments, using perforated tab booklets on ring binders. Delivering newspapers gave me a little spending cash and taught me responsibility. 

We even delivered our route during the 1978 blizzard, when sidewalks were buried and cutting across lawns was out of the question.

 On one occasion, my friend and I got in some hot water for delivering the Sunday inserts (which were delivered to paperboys a day early), on Saturday. It turned out that was against the rules, and one subscriber ratted us out. Saturday’s paper was always the lightest so we thought it made sense to even the delivery weight out. Turns out local advertisers didn’t want to tip off their sale prices a day early. Live and learn.

In high school, I wrote for the Riley Review and had a few stories published on the Tribune’s Next Generation Page. Anyone who has seen his or her byline in print will tell you what a rush it is, and that it never gets old.

 The Review was published every other week. This was all pre-computer. Mrs. Lois Claus, our publications adviser, was a terrific teacher and encouraged me to pursue a journalism career.  I was the editor-in-chief my senior year and was chosen as the most valuable staffer for Riley High School. 

With the excitement of investigative journalism still swirling in the air from Watergate, I headed off to Indiana University with an eye on a journalism degree and a business minor. When I arrived in Bloomington, the south lounge in the Indiana Memorial Union offered copies of newspapers from across the country for homesick students.

 The Indiana Daily Student was a well-regarded college paper that saw itself not only as a journalism laboratory, but as a serious newspaper, competing with the Bloomington Herald Telephone. 

In my marketing class, I did my term paper on Gannett’s new creation, USA Today. Journalism students derided it as “McPaper.” Short stories! Lots of silly graphs! Dispensers that looked like televisions! The Doonesbury cartoon strip relentlessly made fun of it. One joke circulating was that an USA Today journalist submitted a four paragraph resignation letter and his copy editor cut it to one paragraph and added a color illustration. All agreed, USA Today was neither a threat to neighborhood newspapers nor a space for serious national print journalism.

 As it turns out, USA Today was a bellwether for what was coming in local print journalism; shorter stories, lots of color and graphics, and an emphasis on national over local.

I toiled away as a sportswriter my first three years of college, then spent a summer as a copy editor, and then was on the editorial board for my senior year. But an expected summer internship with my hometown paper was not to be after the managing editor took a pass on me. My journalism dreams were dimming.

I did the last thing I expected to do after graduating: I moved back to South Bend and took a job that did not involve newspaper writing. A few months later, I interviewed with a small newspaper in Seymour, Indiana (owned by Gannett). The job entailed writing, copy editing, and photography with a starting salary of $16,000. I declined.

 Back in South Bend, I never considered not re-upping my South Bend Tribune subscription. I was a journalism “junkie” who would never do without my hometown paper. It was still locally owned afternoon paper. I can remember getting home from work and diving into the box scores, the letters to the editor (occasionally one I penned!), local news, and, of course, local sports.

 After getting married and having kids, I can remember arriving home and being irritated that I couldn’t spend quality time with the paper without interruption. The Tribune made a big investment in their downtown building adding a large, modern printing facility. 

But changes were coming. The Tribune decided to go to a morning edition. There went the after-school delivery jobs for kids. Ownership changed. First television, then the Internet dictated that news had to be refreshed every few minutes. By the time your newspaper hit the doorstep, the contents were stale. And then the Internet killed the classified ad gravy train.

 As Ken Bradford documented, in the past two decades, hundreds of local newspapers have gone out of business while taking thousands of jobs down with them. People started to think great journalism was free for the taking on the Internet.

 Three years ago, while I was on vacation, my South Bend Tribune subscription lapsed. I did not feel the need to renew. For a while I had also subscribed to the Chicago Tribune, but Sam Zell used his business “acumen” to hollow out the once great newspaper for his profit. 

With Gannett’s purchase of the South Bend Tribune, I’m afraid the writing is on the wall, even if it’s not covered by the few local journalists still toiling at the paper. Most of the content now is pre-packaged fluff. Since the paper is printed out of town, late-breaking stories, including sports, don’t make the morning paper. There is still some good local journalism, but the Tribune now qualifies as one of many Gannett “ghost papers.”

My elderly mom still faithfully subscribes to the Tribune, but her patience is waning. She does not have the Internet or cable, so she relies on the paper for local stories, puzzles, the television listings, and even the weather. Sadly, her delivery has been spotty at best. Many days she doesn’t get the paper on time and sometimes not at all. There is no local customer service anymore to help her. She feels disconnected from her community. 

And so should we all. Without a strong local newspaper presence, many stories go unreported or under-reported. As the saying goes, democracy dies in the dark. We are all worse off for not having local news covered by local newspapers. Television news is mostly tied to titillating video. Local meetings aren’t covered unless there is controversy. Social media spreads more disinformation than reliable information. 

My love affair with good journalism continues. My brother passes on his New York Times when he is finished with it; no online versions for us. I like to feel the paper in my hands. The Guardian’s online reporting is very good so my wife pays for a subscription. But I still miss the daily dose of local newsprint hitting my porch and I think I always will.