As local news withers, we’re losing sense of identity

Two former newspapermen lament the loss of local papers

WHEN RICK HOLMES RETIRED as the opinion editor at the MetroWest Daily News in 2017, he was worried about the decline in journalism and what it would mean for local communities.

“The local paper introduces us to our neighbors. It’s a mirror, through which communities see themselves. It expresses and reflects community values. It establishes the facts on which public debates are based. In its pages, the community defines itself, argues with itself, sets its priorities and, most of the time, finds consensus,” Holmes wrote in his farewell column.

In the three years since he wrote his goodbye, the situation has only worsened. His paper, and the chain it was a part of, merged into an even bigger organization called Gannett. His position was abolished and his old paper now rarely runs a locally produced editorial on a local issue.

“I don’t believe Gannett has any editorial page editors anymore,” Holmes said on the CommonWealth Codcast. “Even the Providence Journal no longer has an editorial page editor. So how is a paper like that, the most important media presence in the state, going to exercise any leadership if they don’t have anyone to research those topics and write about them and provide that leadership in the pages of the paper. It’s a tremendous loss.”

Holmes dredged up his concerns for the local news business while writing a review for CommonWealth of a new book called Ghosting the News by Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post. It’s a book that documents the withering away of local news, not just in Massachusetts but across the country.

“It’s not necessarily a new story, but it’s a very important story about what is being lost almost without anybody noticing, which is the quality and quantity of news coverage at the local level,” Holmes said.

Bob Unger, the former editor and associate publisher of Southcoast Media Group (which owned the New Bedford Standard-Times), said on the Codcast that he recalls a time when the newspaper helped set the community’s agenda on such issues as education and dental disease among young people.

Unger said the Standard-Times in 2005 had 56 full-time staff members, a dozen part-timers, and a generous budget for correspondents. Now, he said, the paper has two to three generally inexperienced reporters and  turnover is high.

“They’re green, just out of school often, with no experience and lacking the resources to cover a dynamic city with challenging economic pressures, social issues, and so on,” Unger said. “There’s real frustration down there with the news coverage they’re presenting with a diminished news organization like that. There are fears the South Coast could become a news desert.”

Holmes said the intangibles associated with less news coverage are even more important. “We have communities that really don’t separate themselves from each other, don’t distinguish themselves from each other anymore, and that’s a terrible loss,” he said. “You’ve got a place like New Bedford and Framingham, where I worked, they’re distinct places, they have their own character, their own identity, their own issues, and yet when all we’re doing is getting our news from social media or the local TV stations all those differences are lost and there’s something irreplaceable about losing that sense of identity and common purpose.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Unger said Holyoke lost its daily newspaper, the Holyoke Transcript Telegram, in 1993 and over time lost its identity. He said Holyoke is now a suburb of north Springfield.

Neither Holmes, who is living in Vermont, nor Unger have an answer for the decline of local news. In some communities, wealthy individuals (John Henry at the Boston Globe) or investors (Berkshire Eagle) have stepped in, stabilized, and in some cases grown news coverage. Nonprofit operations, including CommonWealth, have filled some gaps in coverage. There is even rumbling about taxpayer support for news gathering.

“Up until very recently we would have thought that idea was absurd,” Holmes said. “Newspapers don’t like being dependent on politicians. It may be one of those things – a bad idea whose time has come.”