Towns that lose newspapers lose a gift of democracy

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN
Posted April 12, 2012, at 12:04 p.m.

The Houlton Pioneer Times calls itself “the only newspaper in the world interested in Houlton, Maine.” That’s no exaggeration.

The claim can be made by any small-town newspaper, and its significance takes on new meaning as towns such as Belfast and Bar Harbor lose weekly newspapers. As staffs and resources of daily newspapers dwindle, the responsibilities of the local weeklies increase for small rural communities, and a town or region without a newspaper that cares about it more than any other place loses a gift of democracy.

As a correspondent for the Bangor Daily News when I first moved to Maine, I reported to one of three bureaus in Aroostook County. Now there is one.

The editor of the weekly Aroostook Republican in Caribou at that time challenged and inspired me. A hard-hitting journalist from California, she knew how to hold government officials accountable and keep her readers informed about how their tax dollars were spent. We met over and over again at the events we covered and I tried to emulate her doggedness.

When I eventually moved into her position at the weekly, after she returned to her home state, there were times when I was the only person in the audience at meetings of the city council, planning board or school board. Why aren’t there more people here, I wondered. Suddenly I felt the burden: I was the public. I represented the people of Caribou. They trusted me to report what they were missing, and city officials knew their actions would be publicized. I was the fabled “watchdog.”

What if I weren’t there? What if the media did not cover the actions of elected officials regularly? Would more and more residents attend meetings to ensure decisions were made in their best interests and not just the interests of those with power to persuade public officials?

Our staff consisted of the editor, one reporter, a handful of part-time correspondents in surrounding towns, an ad manager, an ad salesperson and a receptionist who also handled classifieds. Things haven’t changed much. The hours are long, the work unending. Staff writers for the weekly newspapers are everywhere every day and evening taking photos and notes, conducting interviews — recording the events and activities that make their towns unique.

Of course, technology has streamlined the process. Today’s staff members are not developing film and printing photos on equipment installed over the toilet in a bathroom converted into a darkroom, as we did at the Aroostook Republican of the 1970s. But I dare say if they need a left-hand photo to illustrate a story on page one, they might run out and take one on deadline, just as we did from time to time.

Only on Sunday night did I have time to plunk my portable typewriter on the kitchen counter to bang out my editorial for the week. There was almost always a meeting on Monday night before our deadline on Tuesday, when we spent the afternoon at Northeast Publishing finishing the layouts for page one and the editorial page. Monday and Tuesday were crazy. Even after I changed jobs, the work pattern persisted and I was highly productive on the first two days of the week.

Town meetings, fires, openings and closings of businesses, new roads, court news, sports events, construction projects, school news, pageants, weather events, elections, recitals, concerts, fairs, deaths, arrests, editorials and letters from readers still fill the pages of a town’s weekly newspaper. Charged with the task of writing one chapter in the sesquicentennial history of Caribou, I spent hours in the basement of the public library with bound volumes of the Aroostook Republican. The paper was literally the “first draft of history.”

The weekly newspaper serves small communities unlike any other source of news and information. It helps define and preserve the personality of a town and enables those who have moved away to stay connected. It fosters the local marketplace in a time when people are realizing that the future of their communities depends on supporting local businesses.

The newspaper is one of those businesses. Will the weekly survive the demand for instant access to what’s happening? Former weekly newspaper editor Jay Davis of Belfast, Maine, says, “What people want to know right away is not the heart and soul of a newspaper. The soul of a newspaper is reporters who try to understand what’s going on in a community and write about it in a compelling way.”

Mark Putnam, executive editor of three Aroostook County weeklies, agrees: “People want news written for them so they can understand what is going on. They don’t want to pay for postings submitted by other readers.” He and Davis both have found that people want their own newspaper, even in cities as close to each other as Caribou and Presque Isle.

As the only newspaper dedicated to a particular place, the local weekly has an enviable audience and advertising base. Whether it is best delivered online or by hand remains a question, but if the Internet wins, I hope the people charged with writing the bicentennial history of Caribou will be able to access 21st century newspapers as easily as I did the old ones when the city turned 150.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/12/living/towns-that-lose-newspapers-lose-a-gift-of-democracy/ printed on December 21, 2014