Friday, February 18, 2011
Local News from Nowhere
From the late 1930s to the end of the 60s the newspaper I later worked for was located in the heart of downtown, a few hundred feet off Main Street.
The post office was two blocks away, and every morning the editor would take a break around 10 and walk over to pick up the mail. He could have delegated the responsibility, but instead considered it one of the most important things he did. It put him out in the community, where people could flag him down and tell him what was on their minds. Often he’d return to the office with two or three leads on news stories.
In 1970, having outgrown its downtown location, the newspaper moved one mile to a former Safeway building. It was no longer in the center of town, but it was highly visible on Main Street as you came in from the state highway. The editor still picked up the mail every day (a tradition I continued until 1991) but had to drive to the post office instead of walking. He didn’t encounter as many people and came back with far fewer story ideas.
Several years ago and under a different ownership, the paper no longer needed all the space in the former Safeway building. It sold the property to a Toyota dealership for a nice piece of cash and moved to a smaller space in a business park at the outskirts of town. It’s two miles from the post office now, but since the paper got rid of the P.O. box as a cost-cutting measure, it doesn’t really matter.
At least it’s still located somewhere within the city it serves. The daily newspaper in the next town, a far larger operation, sold its downtown building a few years back and moved its physical operations several miles away, completely outside the city it’s named for. The paper is now located in a business park so far off the beaten path that you half expect to see a hitchhiker with a chainsaw as you drive out to it.
The publisher spoke at a Rotary Club luncheon last month and was asked if the paper would ever move back to its home city. He said he’d like to, but the long-term lease the paper has at its current location would make such a move problematic. In other words, don’t hold your breath.
At least that newspaper still has an office people can go to, if they’re willing to put out the effort. AOL recently started four online newspapers in our county as part of their nationwide effort to provide local news content. The papers are all called Patch.com, preceded by the name of the community.
In front of me as I write this is the business card for one of the local Patch editors. It shows the website address, the editor’s cell phone number and e-mail address. There’s no geographic address at all — not even a P.O. Box. If I didn’t personally know the editor, I’d have to wonder if she, like her publication, is virtual.
The trend line is clear, and resistance is futile. No one ever got ahead in this country by fighting progress. But progress can leave good things in its wake without creating a replacement of equal value. The physical connectedness between a community and its news sources may be one of those good things lost. I hope not, but am far from convinced.