Democracy Dies in Darkness; So Do Small Towns Without Newspapers

My father was a newspaper man. After managing three newspapers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I was born, my dad became the editor of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. They were the morning and afternoon newspapers in Phoenix, Arizona, back when most large cities had both morning and afternoon papers. It was 1950.


After serving as the editor of the Republic and Gazette for two years, my dad went looking for a new opportunity. He was forty-two years old and married with five children.


In my memoir, Not Your Father’s America, I write about how my mother and father drove to California in search of a small newspaper they could buy. They drove from the top of California to the bottom, from Eureka, near Oregon, to Chula Vista, near the Mexican border, stopping in every little town and hamlet with a small independent newspaper that might be for sale. They found the El Cajon Valley News in East San Diego County, about thirty freeway minutes from the beach and an hour from Mexico. I know. Too bad about the beach. In one of California’s premiere beach towns, I guess the La Jolla Light wasn’t for sale.


The Valley News, as it was also called, was a “shopper” that came out twice a week on Thursdays and Sundays. It was the definition of a local paper published in the long shadow of the two large metropolitan dailies, the San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune. But the El Cajon Valley News was for sale, and my parents could afford it. They paid $65,000, using money they had saved and some they borrowed. My father achieved his dream, every newspaperman’s dream – he became the editor and publisher of his own newspaper. It was 1954.


Almost immediately, my dad set out to expand The Valley News into a six-day-a-week “daily” newspaper. “Pop,” as we kids called him, boosted the reputation and circulation of the Valley News by serving advertisers better, by joining the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) to confirm readership, and by offering expanded coverage of local events, politics, local leaders, and local issues. He wrote a front-page column every day called Along Main Street, filled with local color, and he gave readers a robust, alternative editorial policy.


Granted, this was a long time ago. But what I learned growing up was how important local papers are to the health and well-being of communities. The two big metropolitan dailies didn’t cover life in El Cajon, La Mesa, and Santee. The Valley News did.


Sadly, these days, many local newspapers are operating as mere shadows of their former selves or disappearing completely. As reported by James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times in March. The Salinas Californian, once a robust local newspaper serving the Northern California town by the same name and the county seat, had only one employee on its payroll at the end of 2022. According to Rainey, “That’s when the paper’s last reporter quit to take a job in TV.”


Owned by Gannett, owner of USA Today and the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, the 152-year-old Salinas Californian had as many as 35 journalists in its newsroom in 1999. It now presents stories harvested from Gannett’s other papers in the Golden State. “The only original content from Salinas comes in the form of paid obituaries,” Rainey writes, “making death virtually the only sign of life at an institution once considered a must-read by many Salinans.”


The skeletal remains of the Californian are emblematic of the wholesale downsizing of the American newspaper industry, especially small-town papers. In Manhattan Beach, California, where Barbara and I raised our triplet sons, the Beach Reporter is also a shadow of its former self. If it weren’t for the enormous number of realtors in the area running ads to serve an ever-appreciating real estate market, there might be no paper at all.


Michael Hixon, who interviewed me in 2014 for a “local boy makes good” story in the Beach Reporter after I won an Emmy, had his byline on practically every story in a recent issue. That’s testimony to what a good reporter Michael is and a sign of just how drastically the paper’s staff has been reduced.


Across America, the newspaper industry keeps downsizing, apparently because it must. Again, according to Rainey’s reporting, newspaper revenue nationally fell 52% in the nearly two decades between 2002 and 2020. Not surprisingly, much of the revenue migrated to internet giants Google and Facebook.


Still, feisty community newspapers continue to make their communities smarter and more livable. In 2016, The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was purchased by a group of local investors from its hedge fund owner. Since then, Dan Kennedy, an associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism in Boston, has been impressed by the Eagle’s resilience.


 “It’s having something of a renaissance,” he said. “If you take papers that have no debt and have local ownership, they’re doing OK.”


The Pilot in Southern Pines, North Carolina, east of Charlotte, is a century-old paper with a circulation of 14,000 –pretty much the town’s entire population. It has been named the “best community newspaper in America” a few times by the National Newspaper Association and Inland Press Association.


No list of resilient, independent weekly newspapers would be complete without the St. Louis American, the only local African American newspaper continuously published since 1928 and the single largest weekly newspaper in the entire state of Missouri. A five-time recipient of the National Newspaper Association’s First Place Award for Community Service, the St. Louis American’s historic appeal and broad reach have enabled it to serve its audience with the soul of a local paper and the authority of a metropolitan daily for 95 years.


In addition to encouraging local ownership, communities can support local papers by advertising in them and subscribing to them. If your local paper migrates online to forego the expense of printing the paper, or adds an online edition, support the online version by advertising and subscribing. Online publications can have a strong, contributing voices like their printed counterparts.


Local papers shine an essential, bright light on the worlds they serve. Without local papers, cities lose the power to tell the stories of the people who live there and the story of the city itself, its past, present, and future.


Cort Casady

Cort Casady has won two Emmy Awards and three NAACP Image Awards for his work as a television and documentary writer-producer. His memoir, Not Your Father’s America: An Adventure Raising Triplets in a Country Being Changed by Greed is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores nationwide. For more information:

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