Journalism ‘absolutely essential to a functioning democracy’

Journalists from Oakland, Hancock and Hagerstown weigh in

By Kevin Spradlin
ENGL 336

* Profile: The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown (with video)
* Profile: The Garrett County Republican in Oakland (with video)
* Profile: The Hancock News in Washington County

The landscape of local journalism has undergone a radical transformation over the past decade. Market forces have helped to compel the changes in staff and strength of public presence. In short, consumers of news have far less information than they used to have.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin The local media landscape has changed drastically in recent years. There's a better-than-fair chance more changes are coming.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin
The local media landscape has changed drastically in recent years. There’s a better-than-fair chance more changes are coming.

In the past 10 years, the Cumberland Times-News, a subsidiary of Alabama-based CNHI LLC, has shuttered its Garrett County and Frostburg offices, reduced its daily footprint in coverage to in and immediately around the city of Cumberland, and cut newsroom hours through layoffs and furloughs. No one from the Times-News responded to a request to be interviewed for this story.

Four months ago, the Sincell family finalized the sale of The Garrett County Republican to NCWV Media, based in Clarksburg, W.Va. The newspaper had been in the Sincell family since 1890. Since the sale, the paper has cut staff and closed its satellite office in Grantsville. The editor, Mary Sincell McEwen, has submitted her resignation after only five months in the position. She’s been in the family business since 1991.

And just in the past week, Herald-Mail Media, owned by Indiana-based Schurz Communications, notified all four members of its photography department that they were no longer needed. “We didn’t see this coming,” wrote one of the two full-time photographers who were let go. We were “totally blindsided by the decision.”

But such drastic changes aren’t new, and anyone still practicing the craft of journalism should know better than to think their position is safe. A key goal of a private Facebook forum called What’s Your Plan B? — which has more than 11,000 members, mostly former or current journalists — is to motivate those still in journalism to update their resumes for the day when the bad news reaches their desk.

Journalism, though, is as important as it ever was. In fact, some suggest that it’s more important than ever, given the visible results available to those paying attention, those who realize that fewer quality journalists, and fewer outlets, can lead to more corruption of taxpayer dollars. This series aims to get the opinions of reporters and editors still working in journalism. Their work is completed in a variety of situations — weekly and daily, family-owned or corporate, in print only or both in print and online — with circulations ranging from a weekly average of 1,600 to a daily average of more than 23,000.

Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, a nonprofit formed to support entrepreneurial journalistic efforts. The group has been especially useful in guiding former legacy journalists to a digital platform in the same markets they’ve covered for years, but from which they have been terminated.

“Just take government, but you can apply this to all powerful institutions,” DeRienzo said. “If the people don’t have information and there isn’t accountability over what is being done, it tends to lead to bad government, tends to lead to people’s money being taken from them, tends to lead to people’s lives being trampled on. As I think we’re seeing in the past year or so, on the national level, what we’ve always seen on the local level … that fourth estate … is absolutely essential to a functioning democracy and human rights.”

DeRienzo and LION suggest to journalists who aren’t yet business women and men that jumpstarting a new media company is easier, with far less overhead, if you go digital. And there’s a growing network across the country, as there are more than 200 LION members operating digital news sites.

For two years, the Worcester Sun has been providing regular digital updates to area consumers of news. The company recently announced its going old-school. That’s right, the Sun is adding a print edition starting next month. The Sun is not alone. The Oskaloosa News in Iowa began as an online-only news outlet and it, too, is adding a print edition, DeRienzo said.

Trust is a major factor in helping readers to determine what is or is not fake news. DeRienzo pointed to a recent study that showed print newspapers have been better at withstanding the onslaught of accusations of fake news than online-only outlets.

“I think, increasingly … people are leaving print,” DeRienzo said. “So I think that people trust journalism that is transparent and accountable and gets result, and is relevant … to them and their community. They’re agnostic, increasingly, about format.”

DeRienzo said the success of local independent online news (LION) outlets, whether or not there is a print component, rests largely on the fact that they are locally owned and operated. It’s a far different position than what’s happening nationwide.

“Increasingly, newspapers are owned by a handful of properties,” DeRienzo said, rattling of well-known names like GateHouse, Tronc and McClatchy. But some of those companies are “owned by hedge funds that aren’t, have never been in the media business, journalism business in the past, and show no signs that they care about it. I don’t think the business plans include those papers existing five years from now.”

For all of the drawbacks and difficulties, the surge of online news outlets have a couple of things going for them. First, they are locally owned. Second, they are operated — both on the business and editorial sides — by people with a vested interest in their success.

Regardless, every newsroom is being asked to do more with fewer resources. Linda Gindlesperger, publisher of The New Republic in Meyersdale, Pa., declined to be a part of this story after a series of unfortunate incidents impacted the availability of staff.

“Unfortunately, we won’t be a participant as we are a small staff and in the past two weeks have had our staff reduced to three due to health issues,” Gindlesperger wrote. “Our editor had knee replacement a few days ago and will be out of the office for a minimum of six weeks. Then, our editorial assistant fell and broke her ankle, had surgery on it and will be off six weeks, then more surgery will be necessary. Another staff member is having major surgery next week and will be out indefinitely. We really can’t take on anything additional at this time.”

Of course, The New Republic has not missed a publication date despite the setbacks.

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