Will the Last Local Journalist Please Turn Out the Lights?

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On book tour, July 2012, Washington D.C.

The indignities of travel seem magnified on a book tour when you’re moving on to a new city every day—usually on planes or trains departing before 6 a.m.—because the travel itself becomes the totality of your life; there is no down time to enjoy the location, only constant movement (and body scans). You gain a firsthand appreciation for Murphy’s Law. The seven o’clock book signing that’s been advertised at six? Been there. The TV interview that turns out to be a radio station? Done that.

But one relatively new dynamic on my Bright Lights tour has been hard to accept. I’m talking about the decimation of local print media.

We all know that newspapers are dying. Every week brings fresh stories of a once mighty metro voice reduced to three-day-a-week delivery with an “online partnership.” (Journalists used to skewer euphemisms; now they invent them.) But the view from my (coach) seat, as a non-celebrity author trying to build word of mouth for his book, is decidedly less abstract. Let me give you an example.

My brother and I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city of about 200,000 people with a once-thriving morning newspaper called the Grand Rapids Press. (When I was quite young Grand Rapids also had an afternoon paper, but that’s another story.) Whit and I were both paperboys for the Press, and I remember that it was a rare house on our route that didn’t take the paper. My back still aches and my toes go numb when I think about delivering the massive Sunday edition during pre-dawn snowstorms. We were trained to think like mailmen; indeed, to subscribers, that paper was as essential as the U.S. Mail and absolutely had to be delivered, come hell or drifting snow.

Today the Press, like many papers, is only printed three days a week; I imagine carrier pigeons could deliver the pamphlet-sized weekday version, although the Sunday paper is still substantial and widely read. I haven’t followed the details of the business arrangements, but at some point the Press was folded into a statewide online “partnership” called Mlive.com. In the process, as these “partnerships” always go, much of the reporting staff was cut loose.

So my brother and I arrive in town for a highly anticipated event at the Fountain Street Church—a renowned downtown edifice where speakers from Winston Churchill to Malcolm X have taken the podium. The week before we arrived, Michael Moore gave a talk there. It’s a big deal.

As important as this event was, the point of all book events is to drive local media coverage, and in Grand Rapids we had a compelling story pitch: two native sons leave town and make it (relatively) big—especially my brother, who invented the Cranium board game and then went on to Ghana to start a new business. That African adventure is, of course, the subject of my book.

I promise I don’t have delusions of grandeur. I don’t expect my brother and I will soon be Time’s Men of the Year. But the journalist in me couldn’t help but think we had a tailor-made story for the small-town paper at which we both once worked as delivery boys.

But I was wrong. Despite the best efforts of a professional publicist and several good connections on the ground in Grand Rapids, we couldn’t raise a warm body at what’s left of that newspaper. The day of our event, the paper ran a page-one story about a local dance marathon. I’m not saying the dance marathon wasn’t a story—I’m only pointing out that it wasn’t exactly a busy news day.

I’m not trying to pick on the Grand Rapids Press. I remain fond of that paper, and its problems reflect national trends that are largely out of its control. We did manage to get a lot of radio coverage in Grand Rapids—after Whit and I rocked on a low-wattage commercial AM talk show, the host brought us back the next morning for an appearance on her top-rated FM show. And we did local public radio. At every station we brought up the issue of the Press (not on the air), and every radio person, all of them close followers of the local media scene, lamented that the paper no longer has enough staff to follow up on story leads. Last one out, turn off the lights.

Anyone who works in book publishing will tell you that it has always been hard to get print media to pay attention to books. Unlike a radio or TV host, who can ask a few pointed questions and let the author fire away (assuming the author is sharp), a newspaper reporter has to craft a story that is rarely formulaic (because the story behind every book is different) and at least skim the book. It takes time. It’s so much easier to write about a dance marathon. In the current climate, for book publishers, getting print media to pay attention has gone from difficult to almost impossible.

Don’t get me wrong—if all the news on those ink-smudged pages I used to haul through the snow in Grand Rapids were truly migrating to the Web, I’d be the first to applaud it. But my experience on the ground is that it’s not happening. The reporters are gone, and local news coverage is disappearing before our eyes. That’s a tough break for the book business but a far greater tragedy for the citizenry. Let’s not forget that the Revolutionary War began with a local news story: after British troops arrived in Boston Harbor bound for Concord (headquarters of the upstart Massachusetts Provincial Congress), Paul Revere and others delivered the news to militiamen. Were the Redcoats to land in Boston today, it might be easier to find a silversmith with a horse in the North End than an enterprising local reporter on top of the story.

3 Comments

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    Considering the state of print news today, I feel fortunate to even have a local paper.

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    Good point there!

  • Darla Alexander wrote:
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    I still don’t get it, Max. About a month after your appearance here they ran a story on some do-good non profit focused on developing countries, so I wonder…do they favor non-profit stories and just don’t get creative capitalism? No, I think it is as you say – most of the writers are gone. By the way – a correction: the Grand Rapids press does publish every day (a micron thick edition, sadly) but only home delivers three times a week. So my elderly mother who lives by print edition and wouldn’t know how to power up a computer much less surf the web, has to buy hers at the corner convenience store the other days. I still think we are lucky to have a semblance of daily newsprint (Ann Arbor MI, big smart university town, now has none) but more ofter the real stories that help us be better informed citizens are not getting investigated and written.

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