Opinion | A Powerful Tool for Fighting Corruption Is Going Extinct

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There was a time when my constant road trips involved picking up local papers. I read from page 1 to editorial and sports. They offer a snapshot of a small but real world – an ongoing scandal at the school board, a winning high school season, the death of a beloved teacher.

Many of my (advanced) reporters started out with small dailies or weekly papers, covering all the games in or around the city at the time. Mine was The News Tribune in Woodbridge, NJ, an independent daily with a circulation of about 58,000. We’ve covered everything from school board meetings to a local boy who made Eagle Scouts. The first big story I explored was local elections, a crash course in politics, and one of the best – and perhaps most prophetic – quotes I’ve ever found was from an incumbent mayor who lost and collapsed: “It’s a two-party system.” It is divisive,” he said.

Looking back at those papers isn’t just nostalgia for an old newspaper. They were social, democratic, political buildings. Their loss is a major reason for the acute polarization and political turmoil we are experiencing today. Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy, both veteran journalists, write in their new book, What Works in Community News, Media Startups, News: “Over the past decade, there has been a widespread perception that local news is in serious crisis.” Deserts, and the future of the fourth estate, which explores the ways in which different societies try to fill the gap.

The News Tribune has long gone as an independent daily. It did not simply die, as many local papers have; After a series of mergers and sales, it became part of a news channel. My Central JerseyConsisting of only 10 editors and reporters, it covers more space than the old paper. Still, it’s a better fate than the 2,900 or so dailies and weeklies since 2005, one of the most “normal” years for journalism in the United States, with 130 in the past year, as cited inEnvironmental News Status 2023” a report out this month from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

The News Tribune was an afternoon paper, common in northern New Jersey, dominated by the larger New York papers in the morning. The hometown paper was waiting at the door after work, with local news, as well as supermarket coupons, classified ads, church service schedules and high school sports scores.

It was a good school for a budding reporter. The veteran editors had time to go over articles, and reporting on local scandals, strikes or council meetings offered a crash course in accuracy and fairness. After all, you were writing to people who knew the ropes and would turn on your phone if you got it wrong. A new reporter who needs to be corrected after the paper’s first mistake has a special journalistic hell: The person is made to stand up at the round editor’s desk in the middle of the paper and eat hot chili from a specially seasoned pot. A challenge by Elias Holzmann, one of the oldest editors. I took my turn as the pepper burned a constant fear that I was wrong.

Young reporters don’t last long — not because of the chiles, but because the local paper is a notoriously entry-level, hands-on training for the reporting profession. But the training was invaluable and the experience unforgettable, especially the reporting power to get things done. Keeping tabs on local politicians in northern New Jersey has always been effective; A series of public outrage and action I had with a colleague over the high fees paid by municipal attorneys, and the quotes were rich. “The good thing about America is that it’s pure until it’s broken,” said a local official accused of taking bribes while on vacation in the Caribbean.

It was also a school for readers. Speakers at local elections or school board meetings discussed issues that made a tangible and immediate difference to readers. Official corruption was not some distant problem; It’s a misuse of money that should have gone to your child’s school or library. As a footnote, it would have been satisfying to know that the lie of Representative George Santos was revealed in a small Long Island paper, the North Shore Leader, before he was elected. Sorry word didn’t get through to his 20,000 odd readers at the time.

“The paper was deeply rooted in the area,” recalled Charles Paolino, then managing editor of The News Tribune. It’s been in print for so long since the 19th century that people saw it as a place to call if they had a problem or couldn’t get satisfaction from a store or couldn’t figure out the red tape. We were friends in the area. I care who does that now?”

And that’s not all. Ms. Clegg, a veteran reporter and opinion editor for the Boston Globe, laughed about how she had to knock on a neighbor’s door in Brooklyn, Mass., to find out if he had won a local election. Mr. Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said the local information gap left people vulnerable to a polarized national news diet, with parents clamoring at school board meetings about vaccines or critical race theory but not getting a clue on the issue. Like math tests and new facilities.

“Voter participation goes down a lot when you don’t know who’s running. There’s a lot more live ticket choice now,” Penelope Moses Abernathy, author of “The State of Local News 2023” and a former colleague at The Times, told me. “One of the beauties of being a reporter is attending meetings. If there is a bond issue, that’s what the cost is, they report. What happens is that we end up paying more taxes, more corruption, and no one cares about the store.

In the early 1900s, America had about 24,000 weekly and daily papers. The number declined throughout the 20th century, and the rate has increased dramatically in the last two decades. “Today we have only 6,000 surviving newspapers; Many are struggling to survive,” the report said. And they continue to disappear at a rate of more than two per week. Some areas have become, in Ms. Abernathy’s words, “news deserts” with no reliable source of news – print, digital or broadcast. Most of them are in high poverty areas.

The reasons for the decline have been widely reported. Advertising fled to the Internet and forced many papers to enter, with chains and hedge funds snapping up distressed papers and throwing their employees on the bone. For a while, it seems that even the strongest papers will not work.

But there are signs that things are looking up. In their book, Ms. Clegg and Mr. Kennedy report the various ways in which local and regional news organizations – paper, digital or radio – are trying to restore local coverage. Most are non-profits, often aided by a number of foundations that support news startups. Not a flood, but certainly, they write, “the growth of local news organizations from the bottom up is already getting the underreported news to the public.”

I certainly hope so. After The News Tribune ceased existence as an independent daily in 1995, while browsing the Internet for stories about my former paper, I came across a piece written by Mr. Holzman, the keeper of the chilies. “The vibrancy that comes with local community coverage, its own journalistic identity, the strength to compete and win, and everything the newspaper needs for the communities it serves.”

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