Don Keelan: And then there were none

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Several mornings ago, after a night of snow, I went to our town's general store to pick up my newspapers, The Bennington Banner, The Manchester Journal and The Rutland Herald. The news rack was completely empty of newspapers — the rack was also void of the Boston and New York City dailies.

The store's young clerk was quite apologetic and informed me that, due to the previous night's storm, newspaper deliveries would not be made until later in the day. Fair enough. She did volunteer a suggestion that I could always go online and get the news; I thanked her, but no thanks. I preferred the printed version.

While driving home it dawned on me, what if the papers from the day before were to have been the last time that I would see a printed version of our local newspapers? And what made me harbor such a thought were three recent news articles on the subject.

Appearing Jan. 27, on the front page of the Bennington Banner was Fredric Rutberg's piece on what it would mean if we lost our local paper. Mr. Rutberg is the co-owner and publisher of the Manchester Journal, Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Berkshire Eagle. Among other dire warnings, Rutberg wrote about the loss of citizen empowerment in exercising control over its government officials - and it would be catastrophic. Mr. Rutberg was not alone.

The Rutland Herald's editorial on February 1, 2019, noted, "Multiple studies have shown that when a community loses a local newspaper, voter participation drops ... this is bigger than a news industry problem. This is a problem for democracy."

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At about the same time, and working with a much larger canvas to convey her comments on the subject of the demise of the local newspaper, Jill Lepore wrote a 21-page piece in the New Yorker, " Does Journalism Have a Future?" Lepore, a Harvard professor, traced the history of the decline in newspapers, accelerated, of course, by the digital age of Facebook, Craigslist, Huffington Post, Twitter, BuzzFeed and dozens of others. And not all the blame can be laid at the doorsteps of the above. According to Lepore, the acquisitions of local and regional newspapers by corporate conglomerates have played a destructive role. Lepore notes that, between 1970 and 2016, over 500 daily newspapers closed their doors. Others cut the size of staff and news coverage. This is all so difficult to have to digest. It seems like yesterday, in Yonkers, NY, in the mid-1950s, the morning papers on my paper route were many — the NYTimes, the Herald Tribune, the Daily News, The Mirror, Wall Street Journal, Journal American, The Telegraph, the Irish Echo, Il Progresso and the Jewish Daily Forward. To my customers their morning newspapers were the first thing they would want just behind their coffee. In the financial world, there is the practice of internal financial controls. When enacted, they are meant to remove the opportunity for mischief (fraud) by those who are in a position of responsibility for the organization's financial matters.

Our daily newspapers also play a huge role in making sure that the opportunity for mischief is removed from those officials, elected and not elected. It is bad enough to see how often the free press must bring legal action under the FOIA to ascertain information. Just imagine if we did not have media watchdogs.

Government officials should be trusted and, at the same time, watched. Our media outlets, digital and print, are the eternal sentinels.

We need our daily newspapers and it is up to all of us to support them. We can do this by buying a daily and, if not that way, become a digital subscriber. One way or another we must be willing to pay for the news we seek - publishing a newspaper costs and the price we have to pay is quite inexpensive, when measured against the alternative.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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