Who Will Cover America’s Cultural Civil War?
First in a series of occasional essays on the current state of local news in the U.S.
“When a new dictator takes over a country, one of the first things he does is seize or close the newspapers. Apathy isn’t as heavy-handed as a dictator. But it can get the same job done.”
Mike Royko, March 4, 1978
In February 2021, Matt Lynch resigned from his position as a special education teacher at Braintree High School in Massachusetts. In the month since he had returned home from the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., FBI agents had questioned him twice, trying to determine if he had breached the Capitol building during the deadly insurrection (Lynch claims he never entered the building). More than two dozen parents, colleagues and students had lodged complaints against him with the public school district.
The complaints ranged from anger that he had not quarantined in accordance with school district COVID-19 policies after returning from a super-spreader event to notes about transphobic comments and the echoing of conspiracy theories on his social media profiles. Others outlined times when Lynch had made students cry in his classroom, while other parents just didn’t want their children being taught by someone who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Lynch said a handful of parents had orchestrated the campaign to fill his personnel file with complaints not because of anything he had done in the classroom, but because they disagreed with his political views. Lynch claimed he resigned voluntarily, a claim that the school system’s superintendent confirmed.
But Lynch wasn’t giving up on having a role in public education. After he submitted his resignation, Lynch told administrators his next stop was Braintree Town Hall, where he planned to pull nomination papers to run for school committee. There were three seats up for reelection in the fall and two of the incumbents had announced they would not run for another term, setting up a wide-open race and the promise the school committee would have at least two new members.
While Lynch’s involvement in the riot was well-known in the school system and discussed openly on Facebook groups for Braintree residents, most voters didn’t learn about the candidate’s recent past until Oct. 26, when Braintree Patch posted an article where Lynch confirmed his participation in the rally and disclosed the visits from the FBI. On the same day, the local news site also filed a public records request for the complaints that had been lodged against Lynch.
On. Nov. 2, Lynch received 2,319 votes in the local election, placing second in the seven-way race for the three open school committee seats. The next day, Braintree Public Schools released the records Patch had requested under the Massachusetts Open Records law. The first school committee meeting in January 2022 after Lynch was sworn in ended early when he and another member of the board refused to wear face coverings in accordance with state and local rules that were in place at the time.
“You can’t fight city hall,” goes the old saying, but that’s exactly what Lynch and hundreds of other Capitol riot participants have been doing since they learned it’s even harder to fight the federal government on Jan. 6, 2021. By late summer 2021, hundreds of school committee meetings across the country had been upended by opponents of policies proposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus when students returned to class in September. Others, like Lynch, took their activism further than just disrupting meetings and ran for local office. In June 2022, the New York Times reported a half-dozen current and former Proud Boys were serving on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee, “seeking to influence local politics from the inside.” The Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and other far right groups adopted similar, decentralized, locally-focused strategies. Membership in local group chats on the encrypted-messaging apps used by the hate groups went from a few dozen members to hundreds, according to researchers.
“Members of the Proud Boys, the far-right nationalist group, have increasingly appeared in recent months at town council gatherings, school board presentations and health department question-and-answer sessions across the country,” the Times reported in Dec. 2021. “Their presence at the events is part of a strategy shift by the militia organization toward a larger goal: to bring their brand of menacing politics to the local level.”
But the Patriot-Ledger, a regional daily newspaper that covers Braintree, and the Braintree Forum, a local weekly, did not report on Lynch’s involvement in the riot until after he was elected. Nor did the Boston Globe, which serves as the DeFacto newspaper of record in eastern Massachusetts. Without the handful of reports by Patch’s Jimmy Bentley, it’s conceivable that most Braintree voters still wouldn’t know about the extreme political views of one of their elected leaders or the complaints lodged against him while he was still a public school teacher.
Bentley’s reporting was solid, but not ample. Like most of the local editors Patch hires to post stories on more than 1,200 local news sites in the U.S., Bentley had more than half a dozen towns to cover. He had to weigh the pros and cons of staying on the Lynch story versus making sure the other towns he was assigned did not get neglected. He had to chase the page-view and revenue-generating crime and car crash stories, and that did not leave much time to do the dry, time-consuming yet important work of covering the minutia of local government.
But in other parts of the country, the so-called news desserts, there is not even a Jimmy Bentley who can devote a fifth or a sixth of his time to jumping on stories like Lynch’s candidacy and election. Since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed, and the pace of closings quickened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 1,800 that closed, about 1,700 were weeklies — the kind of newspapers that cover a single town and publish local government coverage alongside of everything from photos of a new local business to school lunch menus to local Little League scores.
For the local papers that managed to survive, their staffs are a fraction of what they once were. Papers that once had at least a single reporter covering a single town, and often many more with beat assignments like the ones you’d find on a bigger, metro daily paper, now have a single editor juggling as many towns as Patch’s Bentley. To cut costs, copy editing and sometimes even story editing is handled far away in a central, corporate office by people who have no idea how to pronounce Worcester or that the fatal shooting at a local mall was the third this year — the details that add layers context into how a reader understands a story. Those papers have owners who have squeezed every profit out of the operation while asking the journalists who did not get laid off to do “more with less.”
In 2022, a “good” local newspaper “covers” crime by copying-and-pasting the local police log, “covers” government by having a reporter fast forward to the critical parts of a video of the local city council meeting days after it was held and “covers” sports by having coaches and parents submit their own write-ups. They borrow heavily from competitors in a now industry-standard practice called aggregation. “Breaking a story” used to mean finding the document or getting the quote that brought a story to light for the first time; these days, the honor of “breaking a story” goes to whichever outlet can retype a press release and send it to readers as an email news alert fastest. There is rarely time or incentive to get reaction and quotes from the subject of a story, and what someone posted about an issue on Twitter passes as “comment.” What passes as “good” local journalism today would not have come close to being even “good enough” just a decade or two ago.
There is no long-term strategy or end game at most of the remaining local news outlets: when readers decide they can find everything they need to know about their town for free on Facebook and advertisers realize the display ads do not offer a return on investment, there will be no pivot or reevaluation of the business strategy. The papers will be closed and written off as a loss for corporate tax purposes, and America’s local news dessert will get a little bigger.
Media studies scholars have done a decent job documenting the tangible costs of what happens when a local paper closes or its staff is gutted. In short, the cost of operating government goes up and civic engagement, measured by voter turnout, goes down. There is more corruption and more misinformation and speculation. But there are intangible costs as well: if the Patriot Ledger and the Braintree Forum can’t find the time to fully unpack the story on a guy like Lynch, they are certainly not finding the time to do the features that help make a town or small city feel like a community: profiling the 3rd-grade chess protégé, covering the annual fish fry and thoughtful analysis of the school district’s performance of assessment exams.
If a hard-line right-winger can easily get elected to local office with little or no journalistic scrutiny in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states, he or she can do it anywhere. The next front line in America’s cultural civil war is local politics. This much we know.
What we do not know is who, if anyone, will be there to cover it?