Public Comment

Why Local Newspapers Matter

By Glenn Scherer
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:07:00 AM

This February, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News died. In March, The Tucson Citizen followed. Meanwhile hundreds of other American newspapers reduced staff and declared themselves in significant economic trouble. 

Many commentators have lamented the passing of local newspapers; others foretell a not-yet-arrived golden age of electronic news reportage. But few have mentioned one of the biggest potential losers in the demise of print publishing: our local environment—the clean air, water, land, forests, beaches, wetlands and wildlife that enrich our communities. 

Since the days of muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair and his establishment-shaking revelations about a corrupt Chicago meat packing industry, responsible local investigative journalists have shone a withering light on corporate polluters, unscrupulous developers, dishonest officials, and incompetent environmental regulators—thereby making our hometowns better, safer, more enjoyable places to live. 

Likewise, local activists have relied on community newspapers for accurate unbiased reporting. With little or no money to buy publicity, environmental activists, like Love Canal’s Lois Gibbs, scribbled outraged but informed Letters to the Editor, or sponsored public meetings and protests that were sure to attract a reporter from the local paper. That’s one way activists marshal grassroots troops against environmental injustice. 

In Anniston, Alabama, for example, it was a neighborhood group called the Community Against Pollution (CAP) that in the late 1990s spoke up for West Anniston, “a part of town that is largely poor, largely black, largely forgotten, and largely polluted,” according to John Fleming, then The Anniston Star’s editorial page editor. CAP led the charge against a grossly negligent Monsanto Corporation that let toxic PCBs leach into soils, and an equally negligent Alabama Department of Environmental Management, “more of a permit facilitator for industry than a protector of the environment,” said Fleming. 

But it was the Anniston Star’s reporting about CAP, including the filing of a lawsuit, that helped bring the issue to the attention of the rest of the city and the state, and moved the US Environmental Protection Agency to act. The paper’s reputation for integrity and truth-telling helped shine a light on West Anniston’s plight. And corruption—whether in the form of toxic waste or government malfeasance—can’t stand much light. 

You’ll find thousands of “light bringing” stories like that of West Anniston in big-city editions, mid-size dailies and small town weeklies. One of the most instructive recent examples I can think of is that of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which reported the likelihood of Mississippi River levee failures a year before Hurricane Katrina, along with an obvious reason for those failings: the diversion of federal funds away from levee construction to the Iraq War by the Bush administration. 

But every example isn’t a matter of life or death. Without the small newspaper in my hometown of Vernon, New Jersey, activists couldn’t have defeated a cell phone tower slated for construction within eyeshot of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, or the illegal trading of a state wildlife management area for a proposed 165-unit condo complex; or the demolition of a Revolutionary War-era tavern for a Burger King. Those battles played out on the pages of The Vernon News, with both sides vying for the people’s hearts and minds. This is democracy at work, even if it is democracy writ small, not large. 

So if you are looking for the next big, breaking, nationally important environmental story, don’t go first to CNN or Google News. Rather look for those stories percolating upwards from the pages of your community newspaper. 

Or at least that is the way things were. In a 2008 editorial, John Fleming of the Anniston Star summed up the greatest worry of many involved in community journalism: “If local media no longer is local, how does it fulfill one of its most essential roles: informing the community in times of peril?” 

Fleming was asking this question about a local radio station that had recently been mechanized and so failed to report an oncoming tornado. He might however just as readily have asked what would have happened if there had been no local paper to trumpet the peril posed by PCBs to the people of West Anniston? 

As our economy implodes, and deregulated corporate shenanigans reach unbelievable heights, it would be foolish for us to imagine that no company out there is quietly trying to dispose of toxic waste in somebody’s backyard, or that state or federal regulators might not be asleep at the switch as that waste gets dumped. 

The best thing you can do to defend against such possibilities in your community? Support your local newspaper. Buy a subscription. Read every edition. 


Glenn Scherer is co-editor of Blue Ridge Press, where this commentary first appeared.