An antidote to news deserts| Reporter’s Notebook

If you’re reading this from a print edition you’re holding in your hands, count your lucky stars. Because my friends, newspapers are rapidly becoming a dying commodity. Big cities and small towns around the United States are watching their only source of local news, death notices, and high school sports dry up and disappear. Many states, my home state of Michigan among them, have communities that have no access to a newspaper at all, coining a new and disturbing phrase— news deserts.

Last week was National Newspaper Week (Oct. 3-9), one week a year that focuses on the vital role newspapers play in our daily lives and our democracy. A role increasingly understaffed, underfunded, and under attack.

According to a report “Vanishing Newspapers” by Penelope Muse Abernathy (2020), the U.S. has lost a quarter — 2,100 — of its newspapers, a number that includes 70 dailies and 2,000 weeklies or nondailies. Further, “at the end of 2019, the United States had 6,700 newspapers, down from almost 9,000 in 2004.” points out that, according to Abernathy the pace of closures, up till now, has been about 100 a year.

“Abernathy’s research shows a trend that’s still playing out in the middle of a pandemic — the newsrooms that are closing are mostly weeklies in small communities.

“[When that happens] communities lose transparency and accountability [and ] research shows … taxes go up and voter participation goes down.”

Local newspapers have been a part of America’s tapestry for centuries. They chronicle births and deaths, successes and failures, wins and losses. They provide a platform for the voiceless and a check on the powerful. They keep us informed and challenge us to know more. They are a vital part of our collective history.

San Juan County is fortunate to have three weekly newspapers — one for San Juan, Orcas and Lopez, respectively. A staff of four and a half people (three of whom wear multiple hats), works to provide a voice for the community, reporting county news that affects us all and state news that’s relevant to island life. We know we don’t always succeed. With such a small staff, it’s difficult to be everywhere we need to be. That’s where you come in.

We cannot do this without you, the community. Share your stories with us. Starting a new business? Drop us a few lines and let us know what you’re all about. Did you attend a meeting on the island and learn something you think the community should know about? Give us a call, drop us an email. While we may not be able to act on everything, we will do what we can. We rely on you to help us keep our communities informed.

Share your successes; your concerns; your questions; and your vision of the islands’ future. Let us know how you’re managing these days with ongoing pandemic protocols — what concerns you the most? Look to your local paper as much as a tool for dialogue as a source of local news.

As the person often at the other end of a call from a subscriber who hasn’t received their paper, or whose address needs to be changed, I know how valuable the Sounder, the Journal, and the Weekly are to our communities.

This week’s editions, for example, include stories about a new glass crusher on Orcas, a state grant awarded to Lopez to protect a salmon habitat and road disruption due to sewer line work on San Juan, plus football scores and two film festival schedules.

Were we to lose our islands’ weeklies, something quite valuable and vital to our communities would be lost.

Please take some time to consider the value of local journalism. Work with us to keep our island papers publishing. Advertise when you can. Support those advertisers who do. Subscribe. Together, we’ll ensure San Juan County never becomes a news desert.