Fragmentation

Imagine how great it was to be in that bumpkin parking lot with station wagons and pickup trucks assembled, their drivers standing around shooting the afternoon breeze, some with arms folded, some leaning on the bumpers of their vehicles as they stood around waiting for bundles of newspapers to begin appearing from the presses inside the brick building.

This was a palpable sense of community I’d only glimpsed in the small upstate college town where I’d spent the last several years after growing up in suburbia. Yet this tiny New Hampshire community — barely able to support its own daily newspaper — was devoid of any such college faculty or students, and had a homespun Yankee flavor that drew me instantly, although I was decidedly an outsider as I visited while imagining myself as a country reporter.


The Claremont Eagle was one of maybe 20 newspapers I toured that week. This was technically a vacation from my job as editor of a suburban weekly way out in western New York. In reality, I was visiting newsrooms in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and eastern New York to explore whether there were jobs to be had (in most cases, not really) and whether I’d be interested in living here.


In preparation, I’d been phoning managing editors in newsrooms from Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire to the Delmar Spotlight in New York, the Lakeville Journal in Connecticut, and the Bennington Banner in Vermont (where the name of the ME, Tyler Resch, stirred my imagination evoking curmudgeonly Yankee newshounds like editor Doremus Jessup of “The Vermont Vigilance” in Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can't Happen Here.”)

My schedule was so full that week and so scattershot that I recall asking the editor in Manchester, Conn. — about an hour south of where I was staying in western Massachusetts — how long he thought it would take to get to my next appointment, in Kingston.
“Kingston, Rhode Island?” came the incredulous response from the editor, who had just given me a writing test similar to ones I’d taken at some other papers.
“No, Kingston, N.Y.,” I said, realizing that I needed to speed if I was to make my scheduled appointment at The Daily Freeman on time.

The Freeman had just begun dealing with a labor union, I’d learned at its sister newspaper in Claremont. And the Freeman seemed a slicker sister than the Eagle, with its assembled down-home delivery drivers, somewearing houndstooth Yankee checkered jackets, even in late June.

As a budding journalist, I’d rejected the notion of returning to my native New York, where friends had asked whether I planned on studying at Columbia. I preferred Syracuse University because it seemed less intense, but after I’d been accepted and contemplated studying, I realized I was better suited to the School of Hard Knocks.

Similarly, when I was offered a job at The Troy Record — where my test had included having to name all nine Supreme Court justices and to write a challenging news story incorporating the towns of Schaghticoke and Rensselaer. (Spellcheck hadn’t yet been invented in 1976.)

So I landed at The Greenfield Recorder in this Western Massachusetts backwater with the informal moniker “the Happy Valley” just as its days of a machine factory powerhouse were about to take a nosedive, and as afternoon newspapers like mine were set to fade away, along with newsroom typewriters and teletypes, along with the proofreaders and "paste-up" workers who a just a few years earlier had been linotype operators.

Here too there was a gathering of station wagons at the back door each afternoon, with drivers waiting to haul the day's news into the hills. It all echoed as a beautiful meeting-place, reminding me of the stories I’d heard of the day’s newspapers taken to the rail depot a few decades earlier to make their way to the hinterlands.

And the news carriers, with canvas bags slung over their shoulders, like vestiges of the kids who'd once hawked newspapers on streetcorners shouting, “Get your Ree-corder Gaz-ey-ette!” Each day after school, they carried the day’s news to houses in our villages, earning a few dollars and learning responsibility on their routes as part of a community tradition. That echoed my own days as a suburban newsboy in the early 1960s and connected us all with our neighborhoods.

AND THEN, in 1993, the 15,000-circulation afternoon newspaper, trying to compete with television news and then constant news radio and TV, and the emergence of the barrage of news on the Internet, became a morning paper (although it was marketed as an “all-day-paper” because you could pick it up and read it anytime you wanted.

In 2009, thanks to a change in how newspaper delivery jobs were defined by state law, gone went the news carriers, who were replaced by private contractor with no ties to the community.
"We have always delighted in the idea of having kids bring the paper to individual homes," said our editor in announcing the change to readers, which he attributed to a change in new rules by the state redefining all carriers as part-time employees rather than subcontractors.

Similarly, when Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton — which had been purchased in 2005 by the Greenfield Recorder’s parent, Newspapers of New England — bought its new press in 2008, it meant that our paper would give up its old press, which had rumbled like a locomotive each day for decades beneath our building. The new Cerutti flexographic press began being used to print both newspapers, so for the first time, the community newspaper was printed 20 miles down the road, with papers trucked in over night and layoffs of our pressmen. (A decade later, the chain bought the neighboring Athol Daily News, consolidating its operation with our own and shutting down its press as well, so there were even layoffs in that struggling community as well.)

This month, we've learned that the new Northampton printing press is being idled so that the newspaper group could contract for printing with a private contractor, 75 miles away, south of Worcester. Another 29 employees, we’re told, are being laid off.

In a 2008 New York Times column titled, "A Penny for My Thoughts?" Maureen Dowd wrote about a Pasadena news operation that provides local news coverage by way of contracted reporters in Mysore, India.

“If you need to offshore it, offshore it,” she quotes MediaNews Group head Dean Singleton as saying, and adding that it was looking into outourcing nearly all aspect of its 54 daily newspapers, including possibly a single news desk, “maybe even offshore. ...In today’s world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn’t matter.”

In the dozen years since then, newspapers have been suffering with a even moore ominous existential crisis as the entire media landscape has undergone a nightmarish overhaul. It's a devastating reality for anyone who cares about our ability to be aware of what we need to know to understand our communities and our society, and to participate fully in our democratic institutions. While it needs to survive financially, the core mission of the news media needs to be reporting the news accurately and fairly to serve those purposes.

To some, it may seem this lament for a tiny tear in the fabric of community may seem overblown. It's such a subtle thing, and the tight weave of so many of our communities already are so decimated that it may be hard to recall a time when we knew our neighbors, when we felt true cohesion. I've been fortunate to live in a place where we can still notice the this kind of loss and recognize it as part of a larger unraveling.

Still, as we try to adapt to stunning technological and economic changes, it seems our society risks further fragmentation of its most basic connections … all that gives life meaning. A community connection becomes just another anonymous business relationship.

Each disconnection comes not with a bang, but a whimper.

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