What We Lost In The ‘More With Less’ Era Of Local News
Third in a series of occasional essays on the current state of local news in the U.S.
There was a time when journalism came from the same place as Kurt Vonnegut’s novels or George Carlin’s stand-up comedy. It was a place with extreme distrust for institutions and extreme empathy for the individuals who had to live with those institutions. I used to get the douche chills whenever some reporter said their job was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable*,” but that mantra did, at least, give us a framework for doing meaningful work.
On the first day of my first full-time job as a local reporter in October 1996, my editor took me on a tour of Pembroke, Massachusetts, the town I would be covering for MPG Newspapers. I was 23 and dreaming of working my way up to a job at the Boston Globe or, in my wildest dreams, the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Gregory Mathis was 10 years older than me and had been working at MPG since he had graduated from college.
“Pembroke is like most of the towns we cover — bedroom communities with lots of families, where people commute into Boston,” Mathis said. “People with full-time jobs and families are busy — too busy to keep track of what government is doing and make sure their investment in the community is protected. Our main job is to keep an eye on local government, and everything else happening in town, for them. When they buy the paper, that’s what they’re hiring us to do.”
It may not have been as grandiose as “comfort the afflicted,” but at the time, it perfectly explained why I was doing what I was doing — and why a guy as talented as Gregory hadn’t jumped to a bigger paper. One of the more surprising realizations on that first day was that most of my co-workers had been at MPG as long or even longer than Gregory and had no intentions of leaving. The pay sucked (I started at $18,500 per year, or $34,464 in 2022 dollars when adjusted for inflation), but people loved the work they were doing, and Plymouth was a beautiful place to live.
At the time, when just 16.4 percent of the U.S. population was online, MPG ran 10 local newspapers covering the South Shore of Massachusetts between Boston and Cape Cod. The company’s flagship paper, the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth, had five full-time reporters and a photographer covering a town of 50,000. The other nine papers, like the Pembroke Reporter, had a full-time reporter and an editor overseeing four of the papers, as well as a photographer who floated among all nine towns. In addition to the Reporter, there was another weekly and two regional dailies with full-time reporters assigned to cover Pembroke.
Previously in this series: Portrait of a Journalism Junkie as a Young Man
My first year was a boot camp in local journalism, as well as a masterclass strengthening the reporting and newswriting skills I had only started to learn in college. I wrote an average of 7 to 10 stories for each week’s paper. I covered the board of selectmen on Monday nights, one of the two school committees serving Pembroke on Tuesdays and would try to cover a planning, zoning or assessors board meeting on Wednesdays. During the day I would work the phones or meet sources in person for interviews. Every day I’d ask the police chief for details and documents about crimes that had occurred since my last check in. I covered court hearings, ground breakings and business openings. I worked weekends to cover community events or get a jump on the thousands of words I needed to write by Wednesday evening. I talked with parents whose children had died in car accidents, hoping to cobble together a meaningful obituary. I got subpoenaed and hauled into court when I refused to name the anonymous source in a story about one of the selectmen. If the dailies published a scoop, I made sure I advanced the story with a better version when we came out on Thursday.
In short, if it was newsworthy and happened in Pembroke, I knew about it, and the Reporter’s readers would know about it on Thursday. After a year I got promoted to business reporter for the Old Colony Memorial. My beat now included a nuclear power plant, a hospital and a massive development that would turn a forest into an empty-nester community with two golf courses, in additions to hundreds of small businesses. In addition to covering businesses that opened and closed, I caught the health department director falsifying restaurant inspection reports and wrote about an owner of a nursing home who cut the facility’s nursing staff in half while doubling his salary over a three-year period, resulting in a 50 percent increase in preventable deaths among residents. I spent days hanging out with homeless families who were living in the campground at the state forest in Plymouth and I told their stories in a front-page article.
In 1997, halfway through my tenure at MPG, the Old Colony Memorial celebrated its 275th anniversary. People in town respected the paper, and many readers outright loved it. OCM, as it was called locally, was part of the routine of living in Plymouth and amplified all the ties that make a community. But 1997 was also the year K. Prescott Low, whose family had published the Patriot Ledger for 100 years, decided to sell MPG, which he had acquired in 1979. James Plugh bought all of Prescott’s newspapers for an estimated $65 million. The paper has had two additional corporate owners, each bigger than the last, starting with GateHouse Media in 2006 and, beginning in 2019, Gannett, the largest U.S. newspaper publisher, after GateHouse acquired Gannett and retained the name for the merged company.
Gannett’s ownership of OCM and dozens of other newspapers in Massachusetts has ultimately been about managing decline. Since the mega-merger in 2019, the company has had four chief executives. The company has made a series of deep cuts across its holdings and, wherever possible, has ended print editions. Rich Harbert, who covered cops and courts for OCM when I was there, is now its sole reporter and responsible for covering everything in a town that has grown to 60,000 residents in much the same way I was charged with covering all of Pembroke for its 16,000 residents in 1996.
Previously in this series: Who Will Cover America’s Cultural Civil War?
I was too young to realize at the time that bigger didn’t necessarily mean better, so I left MPG in 1998 to try my luck at what I thought were “more important” publications. Now, 24 years later, it remains my favorite journalism job, even if the pay was just above poverty level (even after I was promoted and had my pay bumped up to $23,000, I would’ve qualified for food stamps in Massachusetts). At times I have told people I would have stayed at OCM forever if the pay had been better, although that would not have been possible given the corporate ownership that has spent two decades stripping the paper for any remaining profits. It was also a case of me romanticizing the past: I have since realized the work I did at the Pembroke Reporter and OCM had a far bigger impact on people’s day-to-day lives than anything I ever did at the news wire and metro dailies I later worked for.
Five years ago I was hired to cover 10 towns in Massachusetts for Patch (a beat that was eventually whittled down to six). It’s been a far different experience than OCM, but also the closest I’ve gotten to recapturing the thrill I felt in Plymouth— the thrill that comes with someone approaching you in a coffee shop to compliment you or tear you a new one for an article you had written, the thrill that comes with overhearing people discuss an article and the thrill of banging out a story on deadline moments after town meeting makes a decision that will affect the character of the place for decades to come. I was older and more jaded, but not so old or so jaded that I didn’t get the same charge I got at 23 upon seeing my byline on top of a scoop I worked my ass off to report and write.
Patch doesn’t try to be the paper of record in any of the 1,200 towns we cover the way OCM and the Reporter papers did. We do our best and if we have someone assigned to cover your town, they’ll deliver a good mix of cops, community and local government news — nothing major will go unreported. But no one has the time to sit through every city council and school committee meeting, much less a planning or board of assessors meeting. Patch journalists have to pick and choose their stories and, to remain free for readers, we must prioritize stories that are going to get the most pageviews. That means crime and weather are usually going to jump city council setting tax rates and an affordable housing push on the to-do list. And I never had the time to spend days sifting through records at the Massachusetts Department of Health looking for the smoking gun to implicate a nursing home owner who put profits over patients’ lives, or make the dozens of phone calls I needed to make to restaurant owners to confirm the health inspector had colecting a paycheck while not doing his job.
Local news journalists, whether they work for Patch, Gannett or a small, independently-owned weekly trying to hang on, have spent most of the past two decades being told they need to do “more with less.” And anyone who has managed to still hold a job in local news is, by default, an expert in doing more with less. “More with less” has replaced “comfort the afflicted” as the profession’s preferred mantra.
What that means for readers, however, is most of what we report on now is what they are already taking about, either at government meetings, at the farmers market when they happen to bump into the local reporter or, most often, on social media (the main tool for doing more with less is making sure you are a member of every Facebook group in the town you cover and having sophisticated Twitter lists to you can mine for any potential story — the irony of using the very platforms that are destroying us is not lost on me).
And there is value to that kind of reporting: local journalists can put the issues people are talking about into the broader context, we can explain what the warrant articles at town meeting will actually mean for residents if they pass, we can introduce new points of view into the debate and, oh yeah, we can check facts and dispel misinformation before the toothpaste gets too far out of the tube.
But what readers have lost is the reporting about the issues, people and incidents they have not been talking about. Before the “more with less” era of local journalism, a local newspaper routinely set the town’s agenda by uncovering the things people in power did not want uncovered. It still happens, and there are still reporters out there who do magic with public records requests and shoe leather reporting. But usually, when we report on a topic like government corruption, it’s because an ambitious AG or DA has built a case, gotten an indictment and issued a press release that we dutifully type up before moving on to another story.
That shift has been a great comfort for those who are already comfortable, and it has been yet another affliction for the afflicted.
* Journalists took the 1902 quote, attributed to Chicago Evening Post journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley character, out of context. Mr. Dooley was criticizing, not praising, newspapers when he said “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”