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community newspapers

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“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed.”                           — William Faulkner

The founding of this nation would have been impossible without letters to the press. 

In 1776, Thomas Paine had captured the spirit of his times and wrote the most influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, “Common Sense.” Paine was not writing to the powers that be. Rather, he addressed his essay “to the inhabitants of America.”

The Revolution was fought and won because ordinary Americans — people like Paine — had ideas they believed were worth reading. They wrote down their grievances of British rule and shared them with their countrymen. Through these revolutionary writings, a common folk resurrected an ancient principle: unearthing democracy from the ashes of antiquity.  

So what happened? Why have we lost touch with this uniquely American tradition?

 In this Information Age, we find that access to information has become, paradoxically, severely limited. With the introduction of the internet, we were sold the hope that new technologies would educate the masses, that instant messaging and social media would create a wider forum for democratic participation. While this has happened, our era also is marked by censorship and misinformation.

Americans no longer trust their institutions. Everywhere we look, we find politicians who disregard our interests and tech executives who monitor and monetize our activity online. Globally, powerful interests invest billions every year to restrict access to information and keep the people in the dark. Our technologies have become the instruments of autocrats, used to subvert democracy rather than promote it. 

To the readers of TBR News Media and the people throughout this community, do not put your faith in tech moguls to represent you fairly. Regular people are left not knowing what to believe and what are the facts. This is why letters to the editor in newspapers are so crucial. 

Democracy depends on ordinary Americans speaking truth to power. We must remember the example of Paine and be unafraid to let our opinions be heard. We must present our own unique ideas to our fellow Americans, reopening the robust political exchanges of the past. The staff of TBR News Media welcomes letters. Write to us because our democracy requires it.

TBR News Media

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Another year has rolled by and we again marvel at another anniversary this week of the news group now known as TBR News Media. It started with the lowly Village Times 46 years ago, and actually there was nothing lowly about that first issue. It was 52 pages, mailed to every house in Setauket, Stony Brook and Old Field, and carried some pretty interesting news and graphics.

I guess the biggest news in the April 8th issue, although we didn’t say so, was that there was a second newspaper in town, coming out every Thursday, a day later than the first newspaper, The Three Village Herald. We planned it that way so we could carry most of the week’s news that same week. For example, school board meetings, one of our most important beats, ended late on Tuesday nights and often their agenda didn’t make the other paper until the following week, there being no internet or website in those days, of course. But by coming out on Thursday, while we could report the school news, we couldn’t capture the local supermarket specials, a rich, full page or even two sometimes, because those ads traditionally ran on Wednesday “to give the lady of the house a chance to plan her weekly shopping for the family’s weekends.” Yes, I am quoting the supermarket managers.

This might not strike you as being a particularly significant decision for the newspaper, but it was symbolic of how we viewed our product: news first, advertising second. If we could get the readers, we strategized, the advertising would follow. And history proves us right. We were always something of an upstart. In the beginning, we stopped mailing to every house after the first couple of issues and gave the paper away from news racks in the local stores. Ten months in, we put coin tubes on our newsstands and started to charge a dime, the same as our competition. I can’t tell you, in powerful enough words, how satisfying it was that first day when the dimes rolled out of the tubes and into our palms. Residents were willing to pay, even if only 10 cents, for our efforts.

A couple of years later, we raised the newsstand price to 25 cents, then the industry standard. We were asking a pretty brash question: Were we 21/2 times better than our competition? Yes, there was some tongue clucking about “who did we think we were!” To our relief, our readership grew. Readers put quarters in our tubes and gratification in our hearts. We vowed to work even harder.

What is a community newspaper, really?

We asked ourselves that as we read every other hometown paper we could get our hands on in order to better answer that question. Joining the New York Press Association, which we did two years after we started, helped us network with other publishers across the state for pointers.

We knew that we wanted to be non-partisan, meaning that we would be without party affiliation and completely independent. It was vital that village government news and town board news reach our readers. We particularly favored bragging about our young people, their academic, musical and sports accomplishments. And we created a second section in the paper for cultural events, science and medicine, giving space to local artists and columnists.

We were eager to hear what our readers had to say and made sure we had clearly marked opinion pages for that purpose. Our opinions were there, too. And we thought of the paper as a mirror that was held up to reflect the community we served, providing future historians with the chronology and sentiments of the day.

Most especially, we believed in fairness. And facts. In a controversial situation, we wanted all sides to be heard and heard accurately. We left it to our readers to judge. They were intelligent beings and we never dumbed down the stories for them. Further, we saw as part of our job to protect our communities and their natural beauty from those who would cause harm. Come to think of it, in our six papers, on our website and our social media platforms, that’s about what we still do.

Photo by David Ackerman

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Since we were thinking of all we are grateful for this Thanksgiving, I can now add one more item to the list. It seems that government officials have finally noticed how important newspapers and media, especially local news media, are, and they want to help us survive. In fact, attitudes on the part of media members toward government have also changed in the last couple of years, thanks strangely to the coronavirus pandemic.

The grim numbers tell the story. According to an article in this past Monday’s issue of The New York Times, there are now 200 counties in the United States without a newspaper. These are being referred to as newspaper deserts. More than 2100 have shut down since 2004. This is in part due to the rise in digital media that has broken the business model of advertising support for local newspapers, with the final blow delivered by COVID-19. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of journalists at newspapers fell to 31,000 last year from 71,000 in 2008.

At the same time, in order to stay afloat, many newspapers have accepted help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program with forgivable loans, assuaging fears of publishers of an inherent conflict of interest in accepting federal help. After all, newspapers are considered the watchdogs of the powerful, including government, on behalf of the people. We have been leery of any quid pro quo by accepting government help until now. But there have been no restrictions or demands put on news gatherers in this program, proving that such support can work if properly administered, and those loans have doubtlessly saved the number of shuttered newspapers from being greater.

“I don’t think we’d be having this conversation [about government support for local media] if it were not for the impact of Covid and the role that it played in accelerating challenges the [news] sector has faced,” said Damian Radcliff, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications in The Times.

A tax credit for local newspapers was one of the main items in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan bill that appeared before Congress in 2020 and was reintroduced this year. Among its supporters was local U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1). When it stalled, it was then put into the latest $2.2 trillion package, as a payroll tax credit, the giant bill having passed the House and now awaits its fate at the hands of the Senate.

Why should the government help newspapers?

For starters, there is early precedent in United States history. The Postal Act of 1792 gave newspapers significantly cheaper mail rates. The maxim about an informed public being the cornerstone of democracy still holds. A free press is enshrined in the First Amendment, and the way to help pay for it was, and still is, by reduced postage. To this day, newspapers that are so designated because they carry a significant percentage of news, as opposed to only advertising, move at the rate of first class mail. 

As for local news that most directly affects everyday life, who but the local news outlets would routinely cover local school board, town board and civics meetings? It is in the local news where births, deaths. graduations and weddings are noted. Local student sports teams, student musicians and academic accomplishments are proudly published, as are local cultural events, exhibitions and fairs. In addition to holding local officials accountable, local newspapers define the boundaries of a community and strengthen its bonds.

Other ways that government can help news outlets include placing advertising from their various agencies. Such a program helped newspapers in New York City this past year for a total of some $10 million, at the behest of Mayor de Blasio. Although counties already advertise legal notices in newspapers, those are not usually equitably placed but rather are saved for the partisan papers by the party in control. A legislator in New Jersey suggested giving residents a $250 deduction on their taxes if they subscribed to a local news outlet.

I can tell you that were we to receive any sort of financial help from the government, it would go directly toward publishing more local news for you.