While reporting on various political events from Latin America in recent months I followed news from my hometown of Burlington, Vermont through the website of my weekly local paper, Seven Days.
I kept track of Burlington politics online from La Paz when Bolivia passed its new constitution, watched reportage on the opening of the local farmer’s market when Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was caught in a paternity suit, and followed Vermont’s legalization of gay marriage via the paper’s updates while Argentina commemorated the 33rd anniversary of a military coup.
The paper’s website offered a portal to home, and underscored the importance of local newspapers in providing a sense of community. Local papers ground us in a globalized world, and help define who and where we are. They should be nourished and supported by their readers.
I’m not a nationalist or a patriot, but there’s something in the place that you grew up in that pulls at you the farther you go from home. While working in Latin America, my home town newspaper was a life line for me to Vermont, cushioning dizzying realities abroad with local news I could identify with.
But now more than ever these local papers are disappearing. They’re being bulldozed over by corporate conglomerates, dropping ad sales and competition in general with internet-based news outlets.
Daily papers in major cities across the US have been folding at an alarming rate this year. Rocky Mountain News in Denver has closed its doors, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped its print operation to go online. In addition, The Detroit Free Press, The Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram all made major cuts this year. The Ann Arbor News will be closing this July after a 174-year history.
When this happens, the reporters are hit hard, but the communities that depend on these papers suffer as well. "We need to view journalism in the same way that we view libraries and public schools, as absolutely essential to any prospering community," Theodore Glasser, a professor of communications at Stanford University, told USA Today.
It’s not that I always agreed with the editorial decisions made by my hometown weekly and its writers all the time. I think, for example, that it could sometimes be more political, more agitating and more investigative. Yet it serves a fundamental purpose in the community as a reference point on local news, life and issues. The same is true for local papers across the nation.
After various connecting flights, taxi rides, and layovers, I finally arrived in Burlington after about five months in Latin America. A few days later, when opening the paper for the first time, the news entered my brain in a different way than it had online: I could smell it, hear its pages rustle, and some of the ink rubbed off on my fingers.
As I caught up with news on the state budget and read a column by a local taxi driver, I realized that the paper had become like so many friends I ran into upon coming back to Burlington – something that helped define my place in the world. Like the parks of the city, the taste of a local beer and the contours of the mountains across the lake, this local newspaper was a part of the landscape.
When I finished reading the paper, I went outside and laid sections of it down between the rows of vegetables in my garden, placing hay on top of the paper, all to keep the weeds down. A column on the Democrats’ override of a veto by our Republican governor went next to the beans, face up. An update about a new Vermont law allowing residents to dry their laundry outside on a clothesline, despite any "neighborhood restrictions or covenants" went along the rows of carrots. I laid down the history of a local jazz band next to the tomatoes.
And I knew I was finally home after the paper put local news into my brain, and began collaborating with the dirt and the sun to put local food in my stomach.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He is also the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a news website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. Email BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com. Photo from Flickr by jk5854