– by Roger Chambers
Utica has a long history of newspapers, starting with the Utica Observers as a weekly in 1817, becoming a daily paper in 1848. Various mergers led nearly a hundred years ago to the Utica Observer-Dispatch in 1922. Many may recall when there was a morning Daily Press and an evening Observer-Dispatch. During this era, these papers won a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 on investigatory articles on local corruption. These two newspapers merged into a seven day a week Observer-Dispatch in 1987.
Radio in the 1920s, and television in the late 1940s and 1950s both had quite an impact on how people obtained their news. However, for the most part the daily paper remained a major source of timely information on local affairs through the late 20th century.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the 1780s that if given a choice between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” With our current political polarization, perhaps he has a point.
The development of the Internet with its rather seamless merge into that ill-defined entity known as “social media” largely via the ubiquitous cell phone has challenged the role newspapers have played in keeping the public informed with factual information (in the news pages), combined with comments by the editorial board, national columnists and some space for public opinion through letters to the editor.
As a general trend, beginning in the mid-’90s, the on-line revolution of 24/7 immediacy was a major factor in the rapid (and continuing) decline in the daily newspaper. Shrinking circulation of the print edition, loss of advertising revenue, availability of reliable sources of information such as New York Times or BBC. The economy of what is today an essential connectivity to attract or maintain an audience. The daily delivered newsprint copy is on the road to near extinction.
In the United States today (2018 figures) are about 1279 daily newspapers, down from 1748 dailies in 1970. There are about 200 counties out of 3143 counties that have no newspaper. An additional 1,449 counties have only one newspaper, often only a weekly. The Adirondack north country is a fine regional example of this.
Here are recent examples of the significant decline in quality pf the Utica Observer-Dispatch, once a fine regional newspaper. The printing of the paper was shifted about 90 miles south a few years ago, leading to earlier deadlines with major news or late sporting scores are not included. Also possible delays in delivery due to winter weather. Gradual deletion of a daily events calendar, a very necessary way of publicizing events, such as political meetings, concerts, lectures or school boards. Elimination of the movie listings. The entry to an on-line presence was difficult (as with many other papers) but also very difficult to navigate.
According to trends in other papers as noted in a recent Atlantic article on the Chicago Tribune, the sale of property or major equipment is a sign of near imminent demise or bankruptcy. The Rome Sentinel of October 23 detailed the auction bid sale of Oriskany Boulevard property starting at $150,000. However, the most significant decline in quality is the elimination of a daily editorial page. This was determined to be only available on Sundays, with limited space for two or three local letters of under 200 words or occasional guest articles of 600 words. And the editorials are not at all local, but often from USA Today.
General local news coverage has also declined in quantity and quality. Many articles are from USA Today from regional areas like the lower Hudson Valley or Long Island. We need more on Utica and Oneida, Herkimer, Madison and Otsego counties. At the present time, the Rome Sentinel seems to be more regionally oriented including Utica news not necessarily in the Observer-Dispatch.
Failing newspapers lead to less factual information readily available publicly. Without the fourth estate watchdog, political corruption will increase as political participation and local voting decreases. These issues are of great urgency, especially since former President Trump incorrectly called the press “the enemy of the people.” How many small city daily newspapers must fail before we realize that a vibrant free press is essential to maintain our constitutional republic?