Charlie Arlinghaus

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.

3 replies
  1. Peter Whelpton
    Peter Whelpton says:

    Newspapers, radio stations and television stations are managed by former advertising sales representatives, and they see “news” as a commodity to fill between the advertisements. “Ad Salesmen” managers do not understand that news from the Assocaited Press is meant to supplement their local news which has been locally gathered and written by reporters. “Ad Salesmen” managers refuse to pay for reporters and editors when they can sell more ads and make more profit by running AP News stories and paying incentive bonuses to the sales staff. Why buy a newspaper when it has the same abreviated news as the radio and TV news which is ripped off the AP News wire and read by an “announcer” who is probably not a trained journalist. I have an MS in Journalism from Boston Univ.’s School of Public Communication, and I wrote letters to “Editor & Publisher Magazine” 30 years ago in which I warned that the news business was being throttled by “Ad Salesmen” managers. Many newspapers and broadcast news operations have died in 30 years. The Ad-Sales-People are still running the news business and still refusing to pay journalists to gather and write the local news, and the news business continues in its death throes.

    Reply
  2. Joe
    Joe says:

    This isn’t a recent phenomenon nor is it limited to the public at large – the press themselves got complacent and stopped caring. As recently as the 1990s, newspapers not far from Boston would pull a story about the Red Sox game off of the AP wire rather than send a reporter to cover the game. Now we have “journalists” at established news outlets – both in broadcast and in print – who spend their time monitoring the very twitter feeds you mock.

    The establishment journalists we’re supposed to praise are the same ones who brought us BS like the “October Surprise” and feeding-frenzy personal attacks against innocent men like Richard Jewell, long before news itself became an Internet based commodity.

    Well regarded reporters? I not only don’t know who those people are, I frankly don’t care. Unless you’re talking about commentators known for their opinions, the news itself is about news, not the egos of the people reporting it. TV news anchors no longer hold the star power they once did and the networks are learning this the hard way.

    Sure, Bowling Alone is correct (great book, BTW), people generally are less engaged with their communities. But so many modern formal journalists aren’t exactly pounding the pavement, they are playing catch up electronically while crying on my shoulder for me to subscribe to something that contains news I already know on paper I have to find a politically correct place to dispose when I’m done using it. It’s hard to have any sympathy for them – they need to adapt the business model to fit the consumer – then maybe people will start to pay attention.

    Reply
  3. Howard L.Wilson
    Howard L.Wilson says:

    Part of the problem originates with Obama. Despite his lack of citizen status and his violation of his oath to Preserve & Defend the US Constitution, he has done the opposite.
    Which most parts of the Population approve of, as long as they get their portion from his agenda, despite his lies.
    The other part of the Problem is the Ongoing Bankruptcy of the Federal Government, exhibited at:www.USDebtClock.org Despite this condition, as long as just enough are employed and visibly working, the printing of Counterfeit will continue.
    I have hard-copy of both conditions, which I could send you, if you supply with a Franked or stamped #10 return envelope. Also, the Libertarian Party of NH failed to collect enough signature Petitions to put a US Senate & US House, 2nd district on the Ballot, to otherwise contest with the Primary winners of the One Party. I am the Libertarian Party NH, vice-chair.

    Reply

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