August 20, 2014
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Though we all pretend to care about state and local affairs, few of us actually can be bothered to pay attention. A tiny sliver of the population votes, participates, or even seems to care. Despite that epidemic of apathy, people can always be counted on to be annoyed by changes they themselves helped cause. Changes to journalism are one example of this trend.
There has been a great deal of angst lately as the Nashua Telegraph closed their State House bureau and released veteran reporter Kevin Landrigan. Following the retirement of longtime Associated Press reporter Norma Love, observers worried that no one in an increasingly lonely press room had any historical knowledge and that the public would be poorer because of it. The concern is real but exaggerated and sometimes expressed by people who helped cause it.
In a small press corps, losing two reporters who have witnessed so much definitely lessens the knowledge base but they weren’t the only veterans around. The Union Leader has a strong presence at the State House with Gary Rayno, a veteran of three decades and multiple newspapers, whose knowledge of the inner workings of the State House is equal to that of any current or former reporters.
Though a paper or two no longer has a full-time reporter, few of them will stop covering the State House. The Associated Press made a strong move by hiring the well regarded Kathleen Ronayne to replace Norma Love. In addition, the much lamented Mr. Landrigan didn’t miss a step as he was picked up immediately by a broadcast and internet concern.
Without question though, there is less coverage of everything local than there once was. A decade ago, the State House considered doubling the size of an overcrowded press room. More recently, they removed unused desks from a less utilized room. There are fewer newspaper reporters. That fact is often lamented by people who can’t be bothered to subscribe to newspapers themselves. It is a little disingenuous to complain about coverage while refusing to help pay the salaries of the reporters who provide said coverage.
The decline is not limited to print. Veteran radio man Ken Cail told me that when he first came to New Hampshire radio in the 1970s, a large Manchester station had a six person news room. Into the 1980s and 1990s multiple radio stations had news staffs of various sizes. Today, I’m not aware of any commercial station with dedicated news staff. Dedicated reporters exist at New Hampshire Public Radio but not elsewhere on the radio dial.
We all know some blowhard or another who insists to us that he only gets his news “from twitter and the internet.” Somehow, a friend of yours making a smart aleck comment in the 15 words twitter allows counts as news. A Facebook link to a newspaper story or a blog which recasts information gathered by a reporter grants the feeble minded the illusion that somehow the nebulous monolith of the internet created news from ether.
The truth is that fewer people care anymore. Things like the internet have disassociated us from each other. We are less likely to know our neighbors, participate in anything like a community, or have a social network that includes living beings. A sociological analysis our growing independence from human contact was called “Bowling Alone.” Bridge clubs, bowling leagues, discussion groups, church suppers and the like decline in favor of social media memes and something called “tweet-ups.”
The result in a civic sense is that we don’t care. New Hampshire’s noble and Norman Rockwellish institution of town meeting is a museum piece rolled out for people from away to see. The truth is that 90% of the people aren’t there. Controversies increase turnout but otherwise most of us stay home. Local elections are not much better. State primary elections next month will see between 10 and 15% of the population of the state actually cast a ballot. For the vast overwhelming majority, elections and public policy are just a nuisance or a slightly annoying background noise.
Most of us are less engaged in our geographic community or other communities of interest. As our civic engagement declines so too does our interest in local affairs. A decline in local news coverage – or at least our interest in it – is a reflection of that decline not a cause of it.