In northern Vermont, there’s an elderly gent who wants to retire.
To do so, he needs to sell his small-town weekly newspaper, but hasn’t been able to find someone willing to pay a decent price. So, he did something unconventional—he’s selling it through an essay contest.
If you write to Ross Connelly and tell him why you want to run the Hardwick Gazette—and, importantly, submit an entry fee of $175—you could be the next owner of the 127-year-old stalwart of Vermont’s Northern Kingdom, with the building and other assets thrown in.
That may sound like quite the deal, but Connelly has struggled to attract the 700 entries he needs to make the numbers work so he can call it quits. Therefore, he recently extended the deadline by a month to give people more time to apply.
And that’s about what you need to know about the health of the newspaper industry these days.
By now, the dire state of newspapers is common knowledge, with some industry commentators even employing the old cliché that the last reporter out should turn off the lights. In a video clip that lit up depleted newsrooms throughout the country, comedian John Oliver recently decried (and parodied) this desperate situation, brilliantly describing its seriousness and why the demise of newspapers is so devastating for our country and our communities.
Here in central Pennsylvania, we need look no further than our own front stoops. Nearly eight years ago, TheBurg launched into a daunting sea of competition for local readership. Mode and Fly had cornered the market on entertainment/nightlife coverage, while the Patriot-News was a 150-year-old, seven-day-a-week local newspaper monopoly—and pillar of the community.
Today, Mode is gone, Fly recently exited the Harrisburg/York market, and the Patriot-News has dissipated into something called PennLive, a click-baiting, page-view obsessed beast that churns out a hundred online stories a day and is rapidly losing its local character. Even the homegrown Central Penn Business Journal was recently sold to GateHouse Media, a sprawling national chain based in upstate New York.
As someone who has spent his academic and professional lives in print media, I find these changes fascinating. However, as someone who lives and spends nearly all day in Harrisburg every day, I find them quite distressing.
A few years ago, TheBurg published a little piece about the history of Harrisburg newspapers. For a long time, Harrisburg was a multiple-paper town, with titles like the Patriot, the Evening News and the Telegraph competing fiercely for readers and advertisers. As a result, hardly a thing moved without someone reporting on it. Arts, sports, theater, film, government, politics, police, schools, society news; the coming and going of VIPs; what the legislature was up to; clothes that had come in for the season; businesses that were opening and closing; who had been promoted; speeches that were made; meetings, events, charities, obits; columns on nearly every subject.
Yes, some of the stories would seem rather silly by today’s standards. Would I have ever cared enough to read a story titled, “Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild Entertain Many Friends” (Harrisburg Telegraph, Feb. 14, 1914)? It seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, these papers served a profoundly important role—they helped build and sustain community. A hundred years ago, if you hopped a streetcar down to Market Square, approached a news kiosk and bought one or several papers, you could be reasonably certain that you’d be up to date on who was doing what, from the most vital happenings to the most trivial. Reading a paper was like sinking into warm bath called your community.
The dispersed, distracted, sterile nature of the Internet simply does not lend itself to the same experience. For an example, I’ll use TheBurg itself. Each month, we post nearly the entire content of our print magazine to our website. However, people—of all ages and backgrounds—tell me they go out of their way each month, leaving the warm comfort of their glowing screens to seek out the print issue. They prefer the paper version, they say, because they like the cover, the art, the design, even the ads—the way it all fits and flows together in an integrated whole. It tells the story of their community, they say to me, from front to back, in a way the Internet simply can’t replicate.
But enough of my own magazine. Recently, I brought my car to the dealer for a service checkup and, naturally, had plenty of time to kill in the waiting area. A paper copy of the Patriot-News was on a table, so I picked it up, leafed through it, read a few stories, looked over some pictures and studied a colorful, informative graphic. It was designed well, read well and told a little story of the previous day. I thought to myself, “That’s a nice local product.” Which is exactly the opposite feeling I get every other day when I suffer through PennLive, the digital mess that Advance Publications (the New York-based parent company) has forced on us.
I wish Mr. Connelly the best, with the hope that he can raffle off his newspaper and shuffle off to well-deserved retirement. But I also hope his successor realizes something that is getting lost amidst the five-alarm panic in the industry, which, so far, has led to little more than terrible ideas like “digital first.” Sure, you need to support yourself, but you also have a mission and responsibility to your community. That’s the business you’re in. That’s the business I’m in. That’s the path we’ve chosen.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.