by Sam Pratt
The following article appears in the current issue of Our Town: The Columbia County Quarterly, and will appear here in four installments over the next two weeks. Link to the first installment: Part I
Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.
That ringing endorsement of the key role of the media is, of course, contained in our Constitution’s First Amendment. The Bill of Rights does not hedge, limit, or in any way qualify this freedom. Its clear language has caused judges of widely divergent ideologies to protect freedom of the press like few other American rights.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” The press, the third US President noted elsewhere, is “the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.” And yet too frequently, a defining characteristic of local media is its reflexive deference to—and dependence upon—the political and economic powers that be. Such deference is paired with thinly-disguised hostility to anyone who tries to hold such interests accountable.
A survey of 420 residents, conducted back in 2009, revealed profound public dissatisfaction with the area press. 54% rated the overall performance of local and regional media poor or very poor. Only 16% believed they deserved a passing grade.
* Now defunct; its former editor founded The Columbia Paper
This lack of local press credibility is reflected in answers to another survey question: “At election time, how important are the candidate endorsements of area publications to you in deciding which local and county-wide candidates to vote for?” Only 27% said their local papers’ political assessments were important or extremely important.
Readers understand that the failings of the press are related to the industry’s cost-cutting measures. Publishers strip reporting staffs down to the bone, eking out just enough pages of news to justify each issue’s advertisements. “The biggest single problem with the local media is their unwillingness to allocate reporters to cover town governments,” wrote one respondent. “Given the sheer number of towns here, an informed populace is impossible without increased coverage.” Similarly, a resident of New Lebanon (population: 2,368) lamented: “We desperately need news and information about our town. No paper covers us.”
The Independent’s out-of-state owners pinched pennies so tightly that they required writers to prove they’d used both sides of every sheet in their spiral notebooks (about $1.50 each) before requisitioning a new one. Soon enough, the parent went belly up, taking the Indy and several other papers down with it. This bottom-line McPaper mentality means that only a tiny fraction of the meetings of each of the County’s 22 municipalities gets covered. The Board of Supervisors likewise gets many free passes, meeting below the radar of the press, and therefore the public.
Again and again, survey respondents called for more ultra-local coverage, especially investigative work to expose local corruption and other official wrongdoing. “Columbia County is bursting with political favoritism—in job appointments, the awarding of contracts, and unfair bidding procedures,” wrote one commentator. “The press for the most part refuses to check any of this out.”
Another wrote: “I’ve no need for more superficial coverage. But investigative reporting isn't cheap, and that may make it impossible in this area.”
Hudson resident Peter Meyer, offering the rare perspective of a national magazine writer who also serves on a local school board, recently observed:
Governance around here goes something like this, I’m in charge; shut up. The job description doesn’t include public inclusion or outreach. Governance is just an extension of politics, where you beat your opponents up as best you can, to get what you can. To consider the best thing for the community is not part of the lexicon. You do right by your friends and relatives, until you get knocked out of the box by someone else, who is then expected to do right by his friends and relatives. Equity, fairness, justice, and excellence are not part of the bargain. It’s the same whether you’re making decisions about entryway parks or property assessments. Without real coverage by local media, which rarely shows up, much less explains what’s going on, it’s even easier for this form of governance to perpetuate itself.”
The simultaneous lack and poor quality of coverage is a frequent complaint, one which recalls the old Woody Allen joke about the food in a Catskills resort: “It stinks—and the portions are so small.” One survey respondent moaned that “Columbia County is a no-man’s land; the regional news practically ignores us.” Another speculated that “perhaps we are victims of our placement among the lower Hudson Valley, Albany and the Berkshires.... Since local media coverage is deplorable, we need more Web sites dedicated to hyperlocal news and events.” A third extended this critique to broadcast media: “There’s a near-total lack of television coverage of Columbia, Greene, Dutchess and Ulster. We’re too far north for NYC stations, and apparently too far south for Albany. This vast area could really use a local cable news channel.” (One was tried in Germantown. It didn’t catch on.
Much of the blame for the failings of local media can be laid at the doors of management, rather than their employees. Cub reporters get thrown into the arena with local lions without training, at pay grades hovering around minimum wage. For example, in 2002 the St. Lawrence Cement controversy was entering its fourth year, and was already the subject of several miles of newspaper copy. The editor of one newly-minted reporter ordered up yet another interview questioning the opposition’s stance. The hapless writer closed our lengthy conversation by asking: “I’m sorry… Who are you again?” (At least he asked.) One can’t expect new beat reporters to know every minor personality right off the bat, even in a small community. But one can expect editors to provide them with enough clips and context to do their jobs properly.
There’s a flip side to that lack of experience and training: an excess of familiarity. The normal challenges of getting the news right are compounded by the dynamics of small communities, where many people know each other by sight, and reporters may bump into the same people they just (mis)quoted in the morning paper at the coffee station in the local deli. Depending on the personalities involved, this can result in treating subjects with kid gloves, or in overheated ego clashes. In a big city newsroom, a reporter may go a year without reporting on the same person twice, or seeing his subjects faceto- face; in a small town, those are daily occurrences.
Others cite polarized demographics as a root cause of local media woes. On the one hand, there are many longtime residents who still refer to “taking the evening paper,” decades after the advent of morning delivery. On the other are so-called “newcomers” (which could mean transplants who’ve been here for thirty years), eager to get to know their adopted community.
As one respondent observed: “Our press has been at a crossroads for a few years, trying to cater to a dwindling population of older, conservative residents, often antagonizing more liberal ‘newcomers’. The groups clash, their news interests clash, and their political preferences clash. I don’t know what the answer is, but small-town papers can’t survive forever by delivering an aging news style to an aging population.”
Or can they? Perversely, shoddy or inflammatory reporting may actually pay off. Frustration over factual errors, wrongheaded editorials, and biased reporting has a way of boosting newsstand sales. Reader outrage creates buzz: You won’t believe what they wrote in the paper! While panning area papers, nearly two out of three survey respondents reported that they’d bothered to write at least one letter-to-theeditor at some point. Almost all did so to object to a mistake, omission, or bias. At least they cared enough to write.
In 1991, media critics Daniel Riffe and Don Sneed took note of that odd dynamic: “Public support for a newspaper…may center on its entertainment value, the controversy or public discussion it foments, the extremism of the views contained within its columns…” After several drinks at a Hudson bar, one young local reporter unabashedly admitted to “stirring the pot” from time to time, just to build buzz.
Circulation of local and regional dailies is way down from a generation ago. Some years ago, over lunch at the diner, former Register editor Bill Wyman recalled that in the 1980s, circulation peaked at over 15,000. The paper’s reach back then was long enough to publish a separate Dutchess County edition. When the Johnson family of Watertown, New York, acquired it in 1997, The Register still had 10,000 daily readers.
More recent numbers indicate a print circulation between 5,000 and 6,000 per day, in a County of some 65,000 residents. Those figures include giveaways to institutions like local schools—freebies which prop up circulation claims to advertisers. Much of that readership is centered around the Hudson-Greenport-Claverack area, with sparse penetration into homes in towns outside the 12534 zip code. For example, a 2005 Knight-Ridder report showed the Register only reaching 9.5% of households in Craryville, 10.9% in Elizaville, and 11.5% in Ancram. Meanwhile, statistics available for the Register’s Web site indicate a healthy amount of Internet readership—though the fine print reveals that 2% of visitors account for a whopping 38% of their page views .
At best, perhaps 1 in 3 households in the County see either the Register-Star or the Columbia Paper on any regular basis, either in print or online. Still, local officials follow the local press as if it had been brought down from the Catskills by Rip Van Winkle himself— even though many voters only read the sports, obituaries, and funnies, if they subscribe, or buy the papers, at all. (Tellingly, the most discussed section of both papers is the letters-to-theeditor page.)
Small-town papers rely heavily on revenues from mandated public notices, published by towns as classifieds. In each municipality, print outlets compete to become the Paper of Record. This discourages crossing public officials who might move their business to a competitor. In March, as the State was considering legislation to lift requirements that public notices appear in print, in favor of online notice, the Register-Star high-mindedly editorialized against the idea.
“Our readers and the people they elect to office must be made to understand the importance of newspaper legal notices.” Without acknowledging their own economic interest, the paper touted the news value of such notices in these choice words: “Gleams of gold can be spotted in legals.” Gold, indeed.
No wonder that “we should buy the paper!” is such a frequent refrain. Yet serious inquiries about buying holdings from the Johnson family (owners of the Daily Mail, the Register-Star, the Chatham Courier, and at least 16 other publications in New York State) have been consistently rebuffed.
One potential buyer was given to understand that whether these papers turn only a puny profit or lose a little money, they are valuable to their owners as part of a media “empire.” If sold off individually, they’d command modest prices at best. But owning a chain of fifteen to twenty papers bestows statewide prestige and clout: In the Pataki years, the Johnson patriarch was appointed to a number of State and charitable boards.
If such a company ever decided to sell, a bigger chain would prefer to buy a large number of papers covering dozens of counties, rather than pick up a few scattered titles. Consolidation of the newspaper industry in recent decades, intended to achieve certain economies of scale, makes it even harder to slice individual properties off the media ham. Printing presses, paper purchasing, ad forces, and other operations have all been combined and downsized.
Next Up: Part III of Missing Ink examines how our regional press “cover” for the gaffes of local politicians, and looks after the editorial interests of advertisers.