These are bad times for newspapers. Thatâ€™s bad news for us.
Itâ€™s easy to gripe about newspapers â€“ and especially big newspaper chains. Newspapers make mistakes every day. And the big chains have made plenty of mistakes in their day.
But we, the readers, have the most to lose when our local newspapers fail, falter and cut back coverage.
And we have to bear some blame.
That hit me when I recently shared on Facebook one of the most searing stories Iâ€™ve read in a long time: Andrew Carterâ€™s account in The News & Observer of the grief and suffering that have tormented Riley Howellâ€™s family and girlfriend since that heroic young man body-slammed a shooter at UNC-Charlotte last April, sacrificing his own life and saving many more.
A friend complained that he couldnâ€™t read the story because he doesnâ€™t have a subscription to the N&O (or Charlotte Observer or Durham Herald-Sun or any paper in the McClatchy chain.)
I had no sympathy. Pay up, I told him: Youâ€™re part of the problem. It costs money to pay good people to write good stories.
Itâ€™s not just about the occasional, exceptional long-form story like the one about Riley Howell. Itâ€™s also about the day-to-day, year-in and year-out coverage of whatâ€™s going on in your community, city, county, state, country and the world.
Subscribing to your local paper is something a good citizen should do, like voting. For your own good and for the common good.
Iâ€™m preaching to the choir here. Youâ€™re reading this, so you (I hope) subscribe to this newspaper. Maybe you get the print edition; maybe yours is a digital subscription.
Either way, youâ€™re investing in your right to know and to be informed.
That investment gives you the right to gripe about the paper: what it reports, what it doesnâ€™t report, what editorial positions it takes, which columnists it publishes and, above all, which comics it runs.
You have the right to complain about cutbacks in copy desks and editors, which lead to embarrassing errors in headlines and photo captions.
You have the right to write a letter to the editor complaining about any and all of the above.
And, yes, you have the right to cancel your subscription. But donâ€™t.
Full disclosure here: Iâ€™ve had a lifelong love affair with newspapers. My father was a printer. I started working at the N&O at age 16 as a newsroom copyboy. Later I was an editor and a reporter. I worked there for 10 years. I grew up at the paper, and I learned a lot.
One reason I write this column is that Iâ€™m concerned about the deep, drastic cutbacks newspapers have been forced to make in coverage and commentary. I hope to fill some of the hole.
Sadly, the hole could get bigger and deeper.
McClatchy â€“ which owns about 30 papers across the country, including those in North Carolina â€“ is in such bad shape it may not be able to make a pension fund payment in the spring. The company has already made severe newsroom cuts.
The merger of Gannett and GateHouse â€“ which together own some 500 papers, about one in every six newspapers in the country â€“ is expected to bring more layoffs. One estimate is that 3,500-4,000 of the 37,900 total newsroom employees in the U.S. today could lose their jobs.
The bleeding comes at a time when we need good reporters, good editors and good newspapers more than ever. Itâ€™s a hell of a time to lose them.
Support your local newspaper.