deep normalness

I’ve been thinking a lot about local news. Last week, while driving to the hilarious middle of nowhere man cabin pictured above (it’s used for fly fishing and has an abundance of twin beds and enough bathrooms so every man can poop in peace) I listened to Ezra Klein’s interview with Margaret Sullivan, who has a new book out on the crisis of local news and our current democratic crisis.

If you’ve been paying even slight attention to the larger conversations about local news — or have been watching what’s happened with your own local newspaper — you’re familiar with the basic trajectory. Newspapers used to make a lot of money, primarily on advertising and classifieds. The internet (first Craigslist, then Facebook) threw a giant, business-model crushing wrench in that. But the internet also set up a paradigm in which news — specifically national news — could be accessed for free on the internet. Some of that news was put online as a sort of experiment in the late ‘90s; some was put up in desperation as subscriptions began to fall. (“People aren’t reading the physical paper anymore, but maybe we can get them to pay for a subscription online!”)

The already compromised business plan began to collapse. Once people came to understand your product as something they could access for free, just because there was a link and they clicked it — instead of something that you had to buy in order to consume — you’re fucked. Not just a little fucked. Fundamentally screwed. So screwed it might actually be impossible to unscrew yourself.

Other things fucking local papers over: the massive global recession, Facebook, getting bought up by private equity firms whose only goal was profit, Facebook, janky websites choked with ads that make the experience of reading news online a nightmare, Facebook, the hegemony of the New York Times, Facebook. Local papers were forced to cut staff, which made the product feel less necessary, which meant fewer subscriptions, which meant even less staff, and on and on and so on.

The results of a weakened local news are all around us: less accountability or coverage of local political leaders, decreased personalization of people with different political views, increased polarization, increased hate speech, increased vitriol, decreased community ties, decreased trust in social institutions, rise in conspiracy theories like QAnon or the Antifa Fantasy, decreased Democracy, etc. etc.

If you’re like me, the problem can often feel so gigantic, so complicated, so out of my control that I feel helpless to deal with it. I subscribe to my local paper. When I report, I give extensive credit to local reporting and try to call attention to it whenever I tweet or talk about the story. But it feels like a losing battle.

When I reported, last month, on What Happened in Bethel, Ohio, I didn’t fully realize I was writing a parable about a local news vacuum: what happens when Facebook rumors fill the space that was once occupied by reliable, widely trusted local news. After I published the piece, a few people (including a local journalist) pointed out that there was, in fact, a local newspaper. But it was the paper for the larger region. The actual local paper folded several years ago. When I was interviewing Bethel residents for the story, I had repeatedly asked if they read the paper, where they got their news. And no one, regardless of political affiliations, said they read the regional paper.

But what makes the local paper special? People often point to the reporter who takes the time to go to the boring city council meeting every other week, and that’s certainly part of what makes the local paper important. But what makes it special — like something that you had to read, you had to subscribe to — that’s different.

My brother and I were talking about what made our hometown paper, the Lewiston Morning Tribune, compelling when we were growing up, and everything we listed was low-brow, ostensibly un-important things: the weekly column where a reporter took the phone book for the larger readership area (which sprawled for several hours in every direction, from the mountains to the prairie) and picked a name at random. Whoever that person was, no matter what they did, they got a profile and a picture in the paper. We loved it. I would read the local sports scores every morning for a chance to see one of my friends’ names. Just their name! I loved the Sunday A.M. section, which was just a full page of photos of people in the valley of all ages.

When I asked other people about their favorite sections of their local papers, the answers were similar: the “teen scene” section, where teens wrote about their perspective on the town, sewing columns, the guy who wrote crabby reviews of new television shows, the very enthusiastic music reviewer, even just the wedding and birth announcements. And the obituaries! By turns beautiful and passive aggressive and filled with details of a person’s decades of history with the land and the area. When the paper feels like it actually covers and features people — instead of just issues — it feels much more like connective community tissue, like “our paper,” and far less like an obligatory rundown of current events.

But a lot of this stuff, at least when you’re trying to make the big serious case for local news, can come off as “fluff.” You don’t write about the importance of a local sewing column when you’re writing a grant to a national organization for funding of a new attempt at local news. But we probably should. Investigations are so important, and they win awards and grants. But “fluffy” local coverage? That wins readers.

Like everyone else who pontificates about this stuff, I don’t have solutions. But I do think that as we attempt to recover our local news and its importance, we can’t lose site of what bound us to it in the first place. Not as many people read my local paper as they used to. But it’s in a lot healthier place than so many other local newspapers. Part of that has to do with the fact that it’s still family owned, and doesn’t have to cater to distant corporate ideas about what the paper should be and how it should survive. And part of it is that it still feels like it always has: deeply intertwined with the community it serves, in all its weirdness, deep normalness, Idahoan-ness, and loveliness. My mom still reads the physical paper front to back every day. And when I go home, so do I.

If you have ideas about what makes your local news work, either in the past or the present, I’d love to hear about them. Just reply to this email, or find me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com

End note: I did my first podcast interview in anticipation of my book release this week, which means: my book is coming out soon (9/22!) and you pre-ordering it means so much. The best way is to call your local bookstore, but you can also use Bookshop (which kicks back money to indy bookstores) or Dark Lord Darth Amazon, where just putting it in your cart supposedly makes a difference???? IS THAT AN INTERNET HOAX? I’ll also be having four different online events, with four different sets of very exciting guests focused on different topics from the book — details coming soon.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

Bonus Recommendation:

  • Wow am I excited for this cookbook, which arrived on my doorstep this week courtesy of Bookshop

If you know someone who’d like this sort of mishmash in their inbox, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; we’re all living through a society-altering pandemic, and I’m doing the very best I can.