Morris: My Local Newspaper, RIP

April 27, 2020

by Leo Morris

The newspaper that employed me for more than 30 years has ceased publication. It feels like a death in the family, and I’ve been trying to imagine the obituary:

“The News-Sentinel, 187, native of Fort Wayne, Ind., born in 1833, died in 2020 of natural causes. Cherished by loved ones, true friend to the community. Preceded in death by generations of informed residents. Survived by a handful of ink-stained wretches.”

RIP.

The current publisher says operations are merely being suspended due to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and “market conditions” will be evaluated with an eye toward a possible return.

With apologies, that sounds pretty lame.

In the first place, dead is dead. There is no coming back.

In the second place, blaming COVID-19 for the paper’s demise is like saying a gunshot victim died from his poor diet. If the virus was able to deliver the final blow, it was only because the patient was so vulnerable already. The debilitation of advanced age was a factor and, as the epidemiologists like to say, there were underlying conditions.

To be blunt, too many people stopped reading newspapers, especially in the evenings a few hours after the News-Sentinel hit doorsteps.

Circulation peaked above 60,000 but was below 10,000 when the paper went digital only in 2017 and let go all but eight employees. Seven of those were gone in less than a year, and the lone remaining reporter was furloughed last week. The paper withered away, and it was difficult to watch the long, slow decline.

I may be projecting, but I like to think the city’s sense of loss is as great as mine.

A good newspaper is more than a receptacle of news and information, greater than a purveyor of opinion and entertainment. It is a gathering place with its own atmosphere and personality. Those who go there get not only an understanding of their community but a sense of their place in it and a glimpse of how everything fits together in the sweep of history.

Civic virtue springs from institutions and traditions that bind people together in a common goal. The church. The charity. The library. The school. The family.

The newspaper. Without it, our bond is a little weaker, our shared vision a little less clear.

But I must also realize, as hard as it is to acknowledge, that the world still turns and time moves on. Newspapers are disappearing because people no longer believe they need them. News is available in too many other places, more plentiful and faster. Advertisers find other formats more efficient.

Add newspapers to the list of things that no longer serve a useful function – the typewriter and telegraph, the icebox and slide rule, the mimeograph and pager, the phone book and carbon paper. Each era has its own buggy whip, discarded by the churn of capitalism’s creative destruction.

That churn is produced by a dynamic economy as revolution and evolution meet, with technology advancing and society adapting, which raises an interesting point. We have just seen one of the most productive, prosperous and growing economies in American history reduced to rubble in a few weeks by our government’s draconian reaction to the coronavirus.

We might soon discover, in a rather brutal fashion, some things that we thought still served a useful function were in fact already teetering on the edge of obsolescence.

A couple of us got to talking recently about the first thing we might do once the virus peaks and our stay-at-home orders start being lifted. Eat at a restaurant. Go shopping. Vacation at a beach resort or take in a ballgame.

We probably should have added a caveat – things we might do, if they are still available. Some of our favorite restaurants will have disappeared, and we’ll have to get used to new ones. Online shopping will have replaced more of our brick-and-mortar outlets, and Mom-and-Pop operations might be gone altogether. Large gatherings of any kind, whether for music or art or county fair sideshows, might struggle mightily. Some of our new habits might be hard to let go of in our nervous public forays.

It will be a confusing, scary landscape, and a lot of people will be looking for help in navigating it.

The kind of help newspapers, for all their faults, once provided. In the last great pandemic, from the Spanish Flu of 1918, TV and radio were not in American homes. Telephones were starting to appear, but they needed operators, many of whom had succumbed to the virus. People had no choice but to turn to newspapers.

And some of you might remember more recent disasters, like that great blizzard in 1978, Fort Wayne’s flood in1982, the Palm Sunday tornadoes. Newspaper circulation spiked as battered Hoosiers sought both information and a sense of connection.

Fort Wayne still has one newspaper left, though its circulation and influence continue to erode. I hope the stubborn souls who still toil there, and at all the other surviving periodicals in the state, step up for one last heroic effort. And I hope they are joined by the brash new breed who claim to own the future.

Before this year, we might have been more patient in waiting for the Twitters and Facebooks and Instagrams to mature into responsible, civic-minded outlets. Newspapers, after all, did not just spring up overnight in their present format. They grew and evolved over time.

Seems a little more urgent now.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.



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