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Charles Arlinghaus: Closing a newspaper should wake you up

October 04. 2016 10:15PM

On Sept. 30, The Citizen newspaper of Laconia closed its doors. The loss for the community is significant and forces us to take a hard look at the myths surrounding newspapers, news and civic engagement.

No one gets their news from Twitter, even the people who think they do. One of the most persistent and annoying myths about news gathering and reporting comes from the guy waving his cellphone at you and saying, “I don’t read newspapers. I get all my news from Twitter.”

In reality what he means is that someone he follows on Twitter or other social media posts links to stories that he clicks on. But the ultimate reporting was not done by my friend with his own blog reacting to news, or by the guy posting the link or by the social media company. Someone read the document or produced the report — gathered the news — that we repost or tweet or link to.

At one time, there were only a few gatherers of information, and it limited us. A big newspaper would decide what mattered. Other papers followed, and the limited number of broadcast outlets took their lead from that insular group. Those very few aggregators of information followed each other. The lead dog nationally and in almost every locale was a newspaper. Not because of a conspiracy, but because it was easier.

About 20 years ago, I was a guest on a local radio talk program in a New Hampshire city. Waiting for the program to start, I realized I was sitting where the news broadcaster had sat earlier. He didn’t leave a script behind because he didn’t use a script. Instead, the front page of the local daily sat in front of me with two or three sentences from each of four or five stories highlighted. I sat there at the top of the hour listening to them replay a tape of his initial broadcast and followed in the highlighted paper word for word — not that he credited any of the reporters or the paper itself.

People listening didn’t get their news from the radio. Ultimately, they got their news from the newspaper reporters. Without the newsgathering force, none of the local stories would have been covered, printed or rebroadcast. No one would have tweeted the story. Your friend would not have posted the story on Facebook with a snarky comment attached about what an idiot the mayor was and how his grandmother would do a better job zoning.

Much is made of the decline of newspapers as if we worry about the paper and ink industries. The real worry is newsgathering, and not just in the industry publishing these words. Think about local radio news. It was not long ago that many local radio stations in New Hampshire had newsgathering operations. Awards were tiered to distinguish large newsrooms from smaller ones. But even the small stations might have two reporters who didn’t just read stories out of the newspaper or off The Associated Press wire, but went out and committed journalism on their own.

Today, only NHPR has a news shop. Some local talk hosts may make news in their interviews, but reporting and information gathering has to happen elsewhere. The guy on Facebook who is his own editor has fewer sources to edit. His troops, the people who go to events, read documents and gather the information, are diminishing. Two decades ago, the State House newsroom was running out of space, and wanted to take over additional square footage. A half dozen newspapers had beat reporters stalking the halls and noticing things. Today, that small room is plenty big and a nice place to think quietly. Only two papers have reporters and the AP remains but with a reduced presence.

The reduced workforce doesn’t just limit the number of subjects your curmudgeonly Twitter friend can cover. It impoverishes us all. More people covering more things makes government more accountable. A greater availability of data helps, but it is no substitute for dozens of community radio reporters and a vibrant collection of information gatherers telling us what’s going on, whether that information is reported to us on a sheet of paper or in cyberspace.

The Citizen closing down is not the sound of an old method giving way to a new one. It is a warning about fewer people watching, fewer citizens helping keep us free.

Charlie Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord.

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