Every time I report in an American small town, I am drawn to its newspaper building. I like to drop in, buy a paper and chat with a journalist or two. Then I go get a coffee and read about a famous son or daughter who just died, the drama of the high school football game last week and the op-ed decrying or celebrating the president from afar.
Believe it or not, almost every small American town still has a newspaper. (Moundsville has the Echo.) It’s one of the reasons I love making these visits: I can’t believe all these papers are still going! It amazes and delights me. Many readers depend on their paper, and many older people don’t like reading news online. Some tiny newspapers are brilliant and win Pulitzer Prizes.
The newspaper is often housed in a grand building that looks like a bank. Typically, in the back is an ancient printing press, made a hundred years ago in Germany or Chicago. Usually, it’s a monument, but sometimes, as in Moundsville, that is what is still printing the paper. Sometimes, there are plaques or even statues commemorating legendary newspaper editors. Journalists used to be heroes in small towns. They were leaders in the community, people you knew you could count on. Some of that spirit of admiration remains. I’ve seen old people walk in to drop off the checks for their subscription, as they chat with editors wrapping their newspapers in rubber bands before piling them into delivery trucks.
Today, I was in Washington, PA, a bit under an hour south of Pittsburgh, on assignment for a start-up online magazine, and I dropped in on the Observer-Reporter‘s beautiful old stone building. The paper has roots dating back to 1808 and a circulation a bit over 20,000, and it’s experimenting with a paywall it hopes will keep it profitable, an employee told me, adding that things have been hard. The paper was recently purchased by the Ogden Newspapers, which belongs to Bob Nutting, owner of the Pirates.
These days, my love for these old newspapers, and enthusiasm for these visits, is tinged with sadness. The industry is in turmoil, bleeding readers and jobs. Fewer and fewer people understand and love newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post are doing fine, but these little papers are on death’s door. It’s likely that in a few decades, most will be gone.
But even as they die, we should watch carefully, and cherish them, and grieve their loss. And think about what they represent, and what they still are– an entire industry dedicated to the assembly and publication of the truth, with precious principles of integrity and verification, shared and enforced broadly by editors and reporters around the country. That, when done right and done well, is worth more than any billion-dollar tech company, political cause or phone app. I wish more Americans understood what’s being lost.
John W. Miller