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Press & Journal: A small paper with a big voice says farewell

For more than a century, Middletown’s weekly Press & Journal has been a mirror reflecting everyday life in southern Dauphin County at a micro-level. On its pages you would find stories about bake sales, business openings, high school athletes, activities at local churches, stormy local government meetings, crime, obituaries and high school sports.

No more. Yesterday, the front-page headline on its last issue declared: “WE ARE HISTORY.”

The closure hit me like the death of a good friend. I’ve known the owners of the P&J – Joe and Louise Sukle – since my early years in journalism. In 1981, as a reporter for The Patriot and The Evening News in Harrisburg, I sat beside Joe, now publisher of the paper, covering Middletown Borough Council meetings. Almost 30 years later, Joe and Louise, hired me to be their editor, a post I proudly held for more than 3 years.

For the Sukles, this was a gut-wrenching decision, coming at a time when their revenue all but disappeared in the fog of COVID-19. It also ended a long legacy of ownership by Louise’s family, the Graybills. But the real tragedy underlining the P&J’s demise is that it is happening in hundreds of communities across the country. And, though you could say the paper is closing due to complications of COVID-19, like other community newspapers, it has been losing advertising to internet competitors for years.

Joe and Louise outlined the effect in their front page letter to readers last week.

“Not so long ago, ads from local merchants and service organizations (our bread and butter) began a steady migration to Facebook and Google. Our classified ads were gobbled up by sites like Criagslist and Letgo. If you don’t know already, advertising revenue is how newspapers stay in business. How could a small weekly newspaper like the Press & Journal, with a budget for journalists, bookkeepers, sales staff and delivery people, compete with free advertising?”

Answer? They can’t.

The Press & Journal is among more than 2,000 community newspapers that have closed nationwide. And those that have survived, no longer provide the level of hyper-local coverage they once did because of staff cuts.

But there’s a deeper tragedy here, and that is the impact this loss has on the communities they serve. Journalism is called the fourth estate because we are the fourth check on our democracy behind the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. The real loss from the demise of the P&J is the damage its absence will do to the Middletown community. They’ve had a good watchdog for many years. Now, they won’t have a seasoned reporter like Dan Miller sitting in the borough council gallery taking notes anymore.

Who will send reporters to local government and school board meetings to report on how their tax dollars are spent, which development projects are being approved, whose streets are being repaved, what crimes are being investigated? Most likely, no one.

A study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, found that communities that lose a newspaper experience a decline in government efficiency, including government wage rates, government employees per capita, tax dollars per capita, and increases in borrowing costs of more than 1 percent due to poor government. Inefficient government can lead to infrastructure problems, zoning and planning delays and public safety issues — key areas that help drive a local economy and business growth.

What’s more, the Notre Dame study also showed that the loss of newspapers is disproportionately affecting low-income and rural communities.

“When we lose 30,000 reporting jobs, as we have in the last 10 years, what we lose is an ability for us to have a shared set of facts on a local level, and for us to have a civic debate on a local level,” Charles Sennott, former journalist and founder and CEO of The GroundTruth Project, told the PBS Newshour in January. “And I think we’re really seeing a fraying of communities as a result.”

Peter Barbey, whose family was part owner of the Reading Eagle for 150 years, watched his family’s legacy fade to black last year, just as the Sukles are now.

Barbey called on Congress to intervene and level the playing field for the nation’s newspapers by recognizing that sites such as Facebook are news outlets, too, and hold them to the same standards. Congress can do so by repealing, or amending, Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which grants these digital platforms “government-like immunity from the liability publishers face for the content they publish.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, recently told CNBC that Facebook should not be fact checking politicians. “I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” he said. “Political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say.”

Under Communication Decency Act, digital platforms like Facebook, are viewed as town squares; a place where anyone can go and speak their mind. If someone stands in the square and says the earth is flat, it’s not the responsibility of the owner to point out the inaccuracy of the statement.

But, are these platforms town squares? A study by the Pew Research Center showing that 43% of U.S. adults get their news from Facebook, suggests they are not.

Meanwhile, those who proudly take on that role, and it’s risks, such as the Press & Journal, are disappearing.

Garry Lenton is managing editor of Central Penn Business Journal/Lehigh Valley Business, and former editor-in-chief of the Reading Eagle. He can be reached at glenton@bridgetowermedia.com.

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