February was a particularly grim month for local publications. On February 6, The Independent, the Hillsdale-based twice-weekly newspaper serving Columbia and southern Rensselaer counties, published its last edition. A week later, the Journal Register Company, which owned The Independent, shuttered its Taconic Press Group, comprising seven weekly newspapers serving Dutchess county—the Millbrook Round Table; the Harlem Valley Times (Amenia); the Voice Ledger (Pleasant Valley); the Pawling News Chronicle; the Hyde Park Townsman; the Gazette Advertiser (Rhinebeck), and the Register Herald (Pine Plains)—and three magazines—Taconic Weekend, Dutchess, and Hudson Valley Guide. A few days later, Lori Childress, publisher of the Ulster County Press, said that the Stone Ridge-based newsweekly was closing. Lastly, the Hudson-Catskill Newspapers announced on February 18 that, beginning in March, both the Catskill-based Daily Mail, which covers Greene County, and the Hudson-based Register Star, which covers Columbia County, will publish only Tuesday through Saturday.
(The January/February issue of InsideOut magazine started the year off with a bang, featuring a picture of a dog with a toy gun to its head on the cover, next to the line: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Shoot This Dog.” This stunt—an homage to a 1973 National Lampoon cover—was accompanied by a plea from the publisher, stating that the bi-monthly magazine, which had been free since its inception six years ago, would close unless it recruited a thousand subscribers. As Lee Anne and I have not been sent back our check for $18.95, I’m assuming they’re soldiering on.)
The sudden cave-in of a good portion of the local media landscape was duly covered in the remaining regional press—Albany’s Times Union, the Poughkeepsie Journal, and the Kingston Freeman—and it brought to mind a couple phrases rattling around the ol’ brain box. The first of which is the great line Mike Campbell says in The Sun Also Rises when asked how he went bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.” Watching how the Journal Register Company has eviscerated its editorial department in the Freeman over the last five years in a petty, penny-pinching grab at profits, I wasn’t shocked to hear that they decided to close a set of what are most likely marginally profitable businesses. (Plus, given Journal Register’s deep financial trouble—brought on by a buying spree of hundreds of weekly newspapers in the 1990s, which seemed like a sure bet at the time but has loaded the company with enough debt to bring it to the brink of bankruptcy—and the Freeman’s anemic ad pages, I wonder how much longer Kingston will have a daily newspaper.)
I was also reminded of something I had read in the blogosphere about the demise of newspapers. After the usual critical pigpile on the mainstream media—the right thinks it’s too liberal, the left thinks it’s too cozy with the powerful, it’s gotten important stories very wrong (Judith Miller’s Iraq coverage in the Times, for one)—one writer asked, “Who will cover the demise of the newspaper industry if all the newspapers are out of business?”
The uncomplicated answer, of course, is the blogosphere itself. Every time a another newspaper closes, someone is writing about it in some dusty corner of cyberspace. We all own our own printing presses now. We are all media barons in our tiny blog fiefdoms. But blog-driven sites, even large ones like Huffington Post, do very little actual reporting. They aggregate content from actual newsgathering organizations, like newspapers. The Internet has yet to produce a model that can faithfully mimic the capabilities of a local newspaper. (Though some are trying. Parry Teasdale, editor of The Independent until very recently, has launched a web-only Columbia County publication—
www.columbiapaper.com—that he hopes will take the place of his former newspaper. Godspeed. As Teasdale told the Times-Union, “People don’t realize how expensive it is to produce and distribute real news.”)
You might think that as editor of a local publication (and as a partner in a business that works hard for every advertising dollar), I would be pleased with the swift removal of some of our “competitors.” And this is true, to the extent that it presents us with an opportunity for new business. But personally, as a citizen of a free society, I harbor deep misgivings about the ability of our
democracy to adequately function without the tangible public-service benefit of newspaper journalism. Even on the most microcosmic of local levels, like the meetings of the town boards that are the bread and butter of small town newspapers. It ain’t sexy—anyone who’s ever had to cover a town board meeting knows that—but the transparent dissemination of this type of news is vital to our communities making informed choices.
News, striving toward the objective ideal, also enables the public to hold government accountable. Without it, the government acts with impunity—look at the abuses of Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition. A 2003 study in the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization examined the link between government corruption and newspaper circulation. The authors found that the lower the circulation of newspapers in a country, the greater the level of corruption; they uncovered a similar relationship between newspaper circ and corruption on a state-by-state basis in the US. If this study holds true in our region, brace yourself for a new level of venality and self-dealing in local government.
Roy G. Biv*
So, while everyone else is going out of business, Chronogram goes all color. We’d spoken about it idly for years, debated the costs and benefits and the effect on our brand (that serious, classic, high-minded, film-noiry feel of black-and-white reproduction). And then, wham! Dorothy isn’t in Kansas anymore. This change allows us to raise the bar yet again on quality in the magazine, a challenge we embrace. For 15 years we have viewed black-and-white as an ennobling limitation, like the formal structure of a sonnet. We hope to bring the same rigor to our continuing magnum opus.