Forum Explores Decline In Local News Coverage
The Pioneer Valley News Guild — the union representing employees of the Daily Hampshire Gazette — held a Zoom webinar on February 24 to discuss the decline of local news coverage. Reporter Dusty Christensen was the host. The panelists were Ben Brody, a war photographer, U.S Representative Jim McGovern, State House Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, Shaheen Pasha, a former reporter at the Gazette who now runs the Prison Journalism Project, and Alicia Fleming from Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.
In the video montage that began the webinar, Gazette reporter Bera Dunau recounted how the paper has recently cut over half its staff, due to both closing its local printing plant and to other layoffs. Another commentator described how local newspapers were facing an “extinction level event.” The Gazette, said another, is now down to four active news reporters who have no time to do any real investigative journalism because they’re tied to their desks.
The organizers had asked a representative from Newspapers of New England to participate, but they declined, although they did say that they are not putting the paper up for sale.
The phrase used most often throughout the night was “local news desert.” McGovern, who recounted how frightening it was to be in the U.S. Capital when it was besieged by rioters, said local news stops the spread of misinformation and corruption. Fleming and others described how important local news is for equity and economic justice. Reporters, she said, need to get away from their desks and go out into the local community. That is the only way they can earn the trust of people who are otherwise skeptical of the media.
Brody called for teams of photojournalists and writers to work together to capture local stories. For now, he said, the Gazette still has a photojournalist and photo editor, so it is doing better than many small local newspapers.
Many panelists described other papers that have moved to either employee-owned models or gone non-profit. There was much support for this model among the present members of Pioneer Valley News Guild.
Sabadosa recounted that when the Gazette was founded in 1786, its mission was to cover Shays Rebellion (although she failed to add that its publisher was opposed to the rebellion). She worried that if the Gazette and other long-standing local papers disappear, we will lose this connection to our history and our ability to hold people in our immediate community accountable. When asked in conclusion what would make a stronger Gazette, the panelists agreed: more hyperlocal coverage, more representation of a diversity of voices, and especially more money for real reporting. No one had an easy solution for how to get there.