I have been aware of the newspaper effort to effectively reflect local life for a long time – ever since I started writing my first weekly column, “Our Regional Heritage”, for the “Macomb Journal” in 1981. It was shortly thereafter Bill Rudolph, whom I knew, sold our town’s newspaper to the Park Communications Company, which owned 144 newspapers in 24 states. But fortunately, the new editors who came and went during the 1980s continued to insist for a long time on the coverage of local news by the “Journal”.
During the 1980s, I interacted with longtime editor Delbert Roberts and company editor Delores Holmes, both of whom were very engaged and popular voices for the community. I even met retired journalist Vail Morgan, who had started at “The Journal” in 1928 – and he told me his first assignment was to report on the whereabouts of the inhabitants of the Macomb railroad depot. which many readers have appreciated. .
As this reveals, broad coverage of local life has been at the heart of Operation Macomb Journal for generations. Indeed, when Kathy Nichols, WIU Archivist and I edited a collection of the writings of this journal’s most renowned editor, titled “Memory and Community: The Life and Writings of WH Hainline” (2018 ), for publication by our County Historical Society, the volume included dozens of her local stories, ranging from personal accounts and numerous obituaries to community activities, murder cases, and Civil War-era memoirs.
The “Macomb Journal” was eventually acquired by Liberty Group Publishing (renamed Gatehouse Media) in 1998, which owned hundreds of newspapers, many of them in Illinois. Although this company changed the name of the newspaper to “McDonough County Voice”, it was a continuation of the historic “Macomb Journal”, founded in 1855.
My appreciation for our strong tradition of local coverage, along with growing concern about the decline of the community in America, prompted me to develop my column “On Community”, which began in October 2009. One of my Early Articles (May 22, 2010) was, in fact, devoted to “Small Town Newspapers and the ‘Voice’,” which stated that our journal reflects “a place where relationships are always important, people are valued and ideals. darlings prevail ”.
However, things got more difficult for newspapers across the country. As Lara Takenaga said in a New York Times article on December 22, 2019,
“In the past 15 years, more than one in five newspapers in the United States has closed its doors. [i.e., diminished its local coverage], and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been halved. . . . This has led to the rise of hollowed out “ghost papers” and communities across the country without any local newspapers. “
This unfortunate situation has sparked various recent books on the impact of the fading local journalism on our democratic culture, including titles like “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy” by Margaret Sullivan and “News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement ”by Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless, both published this year.
As these and other books reveal, the loss of locally focused journalism – dealing with leaders, councils, commissions, and community and regional issues – fosters a serious decline in civic engagement. . Often residents are not aware of what is happening in their city or region or do not commit to dealing with it.
Of course, the decline of locally owned and targeted newspapers is also changing the community itself. A very relevant example for the residents of Macomb was provided by an insightful article in the October 19 issue of “The Week” magazine, which featured a similar newspaper to ours, the “Burlington Hawk Eye”. As author Elaine Godfrey points out, local newspaper articles “are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors and encourage people to listen to and sympathize with one another.
But sadly, the Burlington newspaper is now part of a chain, owned by a company, that has reduced the local staff to “three overwhelmed reporters,” who understandably cannot reflect many interesting local stories. So national news and commentary are now at the heart of “Hawk Eye,” and as local coverage has waned, a meaningful sense of community is fading. Or, as Godfrey puts it, “people feel less connected and more alone”.
In fact, she reports that Burlington Mayor Jon Billups recently said he noticed “a growing negative self-image among residents,” and he thinks “fewer people see Burlington as a great place to live. , and they seem like their neighbors less.
Of course, various cultural changes are driving the decline of the community, as I also point out in a Macomb-centric book linked to my column, titled “On Community: A Crucial Issue, a Small Town, and a Writer’s Experience” (2015 ). But as I pointed out in “Small-Town Newspapers and the ‘Voice’,” our local newspaper “provides the cultural framework for our experience in this corner of America and expresses our communion of shared feelings and thoughts,” therefore it “helps to maintain an essential sense of community.
In these difficult times for newspapers, the owner of The Voice, Gannett Company and the public in the Macomb area must vigorously encourage and support this goal.
Writer and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the McDonough County Voice.