Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There are no presents, or costumes, or nods to religion. It’s a pause in the middle of busy workweeks and hectic lives to gather around a table, share a meal, and talk. At its root, it’s about recognizing how good we have it. And as troubling as times may seem these days, we still have it much better than many people around the world. This Thanksgiving, among many other blessings I’m counting, I’m giving thanks for the ability to continue to do journalism in my community.
It is no secret that local journalism is struggling. The traditional business model for news is broken. Since 2004, more than 2,000 newspapers have closed in the United States, or more than one in five papers. This has left thousands of communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Half of the 3,143 counties the country now have one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities, and almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The number of journalists employed by newspapers has been cut in half, and print advertising revenue has fallen to record low levels. Large metro and regional papers like my former employer, the Trenton Times, felt the squeeze first more than a decade ago. By 2010, even century-old weeklies that had survived the Great Depression were struggling. Many of the news outlets that have survived are ghosts, mere shells of their former selves. Meanwhile, a few large companies have bought up many newspapers and slashed the already small staff to increase profits. Consolidation has also meant that decisions about newspapers and the coverage of the communities they are in are often in the hands of owners with no direct interest in outcomes in the communities.
There is a great deal at stake for the functioning of local democracy if we continue to lose news sources and don’t replace them with sustainable media businesses that do public service journalism. Numerous government and foundation studies have found that for a community to reach its full potential, it must be civically healthy and inclusive. In other words, the fate of communities and the vitality of local news are linked.
Communities lose out financially, too when there is no local news source. According to one study that analyzed data from 1996 to 2015, communities that lost their local news source ended up with increased bond costs because of a lack of public scrutiny.
Local journalists are called to be watchdogs in their communities and shine a light on government and public school decisions and spending. They provide information to citizens to make informed decisions. They also build community by telling the stories of the people and places that make their towns what they are, by sharing information about forums and events, and by creating spaces where people can discuss issues.
Public relations consultants and communications directors for government bodies can’t replace journalists. They provide selective information (and sometimes spin) to make their institutions look good. They are not going to provide the information that brings transparency to local government.
In Mercer County, the seat of the state capital, and in Princeton, home to one of the top universities in the country but a place fewer and fewer feel they can afford to remain in, it is vital to ensure that sunlight is shed on the workings of government, and that diverse voices are heard.
I’m grateful for the support of my readers and advertisers for being able to do my small part to provide local news. More than 350 readers are now voluntary paid subscribers. I don’t thank you often enough, but please know how grateful I am. Your support has helped me not only keep the lights on but also has paid for public records requests, documents, and my ability to pursue justice in court when government agencies have denied my requests. I’m happy to say that my latest lawsuit regarding records related to illegal dumping at a municipal site has been successful.
It is no secret that keeping Planet Princeton going has been a struggle sometimes. At times I have been overwhelmed. I have missed stories to do other work to support the website. Personal life has also gotten in the way from time to time. But I still remain optimistic. There are other new local publishers out there who have developed successful businesses. I am learning from them and I am grateful for the support from these colleagues and friends. As I wrap up this year and start the new one over the next few months, my focus is on expanding Planet Princeton’s capacity to better serve the community. Stay tuned for more on that later. In the meantime, thank you for reading Planet Princeton, and for your story ideas and support.
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