by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
July 21, 2009
THE SUDDEN DEATH OF A SMALL TOWN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- As I watch the world of print journalism implode, I've taken comfort in knowing that at the level of the business that I inhabit, the end would be years away.
The metro dailies are dying because of the Internet. In my corner of Vermont, most of my readers don't or won't go online for local news. If you want to know what happened, you have to read it in a newspaper.
The tv stations only come around here when there is a murder or some other huge, transcendent event. Radio isn't much of a factor either. Wireless Internet and cell signals are spotty at best and nonexistent at worst. Craigslist hasn't yet set up shop, and you still need to take out a want ad if you are trying to sell something.
But the sheltered little world of small town newspapering in northern New England got thrown for a loop last week with the news that the Claremont (N.H.) Eagle Times was going out of business.
I worked nearly six years for the Eagle Times, first as a sports writer, then as a news editor and briefly at the end as managing editor. I still was friendly with some of the people I had worked with. In my current role as day editor and editorial writer at the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, they were my competition.
The Eagle had its share of problems. It was surrounded on all sides by stronger papers and its core readership area has struggled economically for years. Staff turnover was high and maintaining quality and continuity was a constant struggle. But what the Eagle had going for it was three strong weekly papers, local ownership and a commitment to local news.
I had been under the impression that the Eagle was still viable, even in the midst of the worst collapse for advertising since the Great Depression. I was wrong. The owner and publisher, Harvey Hill, said he put more than $1 million of his own money over the past year or so into the newspapers to keep them going. He had quietly shopped them around, and found no takers. He said he had no choice but to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The news of the Eagle's closing came swiftly. At about 3:30 p.m. on July 9, an e-mail went out informing staffers that the company was closing for good as of 5 that afternoon. There was absolutely no warning, not even time to prepare a proper farewell edition. Sixty-six full-timers and 29 part-timers were out of work in the blink of an eye.
We at the Reformer heard about the Eagle's demise not long after the Eagle's employees heard about it, and were floored by the news. And the shock gave way to the gnawing feeling that while we were still alive, we could easily be next. While the Reformer for now is moderately in the black, thanks to aggressive cost cutting and staff reductions, our corporate master MediaNews Group is struggling to make the payments on about $800 million of debt. MNG could easily slip into Chapter 11 if the economy doesn't improve.
The shock and disbelief was also felt by the Eagle's 8,000 subscribers. Suddenly, the routine of reading about their town and their neighbors every day was ripped away and a gaping hole in the civic fabric of Claremont and the towns that surround it was all that remained.
It's not just the coverage of town government, local sports or the police log that disappeared with the Eagle. It was also the church suppers, the weddings and engagements, the births and the obituaries, the Saturday tag sale listings and the school honor roll - all the little things that are what people pick up newspapers for - that disappeared too.
Local, small town newspapers like the Eagle Times and the Reformer provide the glue that keeps a community together. The Internet evangelists say that newspapers are no longer essential, and that people can get their news from the Web or from social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Sure, if you live in an urban area with high-speed Internet, robust wireless networks and lots of talented people willing to work for next to nothing in the hope of being the next big thing online.
In the world where I help put out a paper each day, there are thousands of readers who have never seen the Reformer's Website. We still get handwritten letters to the editor and community news briefs. We get tons of phone calls if the crossword puzzle solution is missing. We get angry phone calls when the paper isn't delivered. To tell these people that they can go online and read their local newspaper is the equivalent of telling them to go away because we can't be bothered with you unless you have a computer.
Newspapers aren't dead yet, but the Claremont Eagle Times' demise was a painful reminder that even a loyal readership isn't enough to ensure survival in the worst economic conditions in decades. Even in a relatively sheltered place, where the bigger, faster, more ethos of the online world still seems far away, no newspaper is safe.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at http://hclassics15.blogspot.com.