JIM SHULTZ: Without a newspaper a community flies blind

Jim Shultz

What would you say if someone told you to drive down Transit Road, at top speed, with your kids in the car, but you had to wear a blindfold? This is what it is like when a community loses its local newspaper, and why we should appreciate, here in Lockport, that we still have a solid daily delivering the news to us.

Since 2004 in the United States, more than 1,800 community newspapers have shut down permanently, leaving their towns to survive in what have been correctly dubbed "news deserts." Local governments tax people and spend their money with virtually no public scrutiny. How local police operate is hidden from public view. When elections roll around, there are no reporters asking candidates about their plans and publishing their answers for voters to see and judge. Local polluters have no one looking over their shoulder.

And along with the loss of all that is the loss of all the good news of the events and people that help bind a community together: How our high school sports teams are faring, what new business just opened, what local nonprofits are doing to lift up people’s lives in ways where we might help.

Now imagine that someone asks you to drive at top speed down Transit Road, but this time instead of a blindfold you have to wear a pair of glasses that only make things so blurry you can’t tell one thing from another. That’s also a bad idea. This is what it means when community newspapers disappear and our only source of local news becomes the wild west rumor mill of Facebook and other social media. In place of carefully vetted news and reporting, what we are left with is dangerous make-believe.

Lockport — make that all of Niagara County — is deeply fortunate to have a still-strong local newspaper, the Union-Sun & Journal. This year the paper marks its remarkable 200th anniversary, making it one of the oldest papers in New York state.

What is its value to the community? Without it, the Lockport school district would have spent $2.7 million on its foolish facial recognition surveillance system and we never would have known. Without the paper’s ongoing reporting, solar projects around the county would be being pushed in secret, without any serious public opportunity to understand the issues and weigh in with informed views. The facts surrounding the killing of Troy Hodge would be largely unknown to the public. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we would have been almost completely in the dark about the local spread. Having real information in our hands, about these stories and more, matters a lot.

There are also important local charities that serve our people and which might not be alive today but for the Union-Sun & Journal’s attention and support. The Sister Mary Loretto Memorial Community Soup Kitchen, operated by the Salvation Army, is an essential source of support for some people here. For more than 35 years the US&J and its readers have been the sole sponsor of its annual fundraising drive. This too is what it means to have local journalism.

A lot of people don’t realize what it takes to put together a newspaper. It is a full-scale operation, and at the center of it are the reporters who cover the news and the editor who pulls it all together.

I have had the chance to watch three US&J reporters in action – Connor Hoffman, Tim Fenster and Benjamin Joe – and their jobs consist of a huge amount of complicated work. All day, reporters like these track down interviews about local stories, do research and make phone calls. In the evening while the rest of us are just starting to relax from our jobs, US&J reporters are darting around in their cars from one local town meeting to another, to keep a watchful eye on the public’s business. Then they are back at their desks, sometimes well into the night, going over their pages of notes and crafting them into a story (usually multiple stories each day) that explains it all to readers the next morning.

Then there is the editor, in our case the unsung hero of our community paper, Joyce Miles. Trust me, the job of the editor is not to look for misspellings or a poorly placed comma. Joyce’s most important mission is one we should value a good deal – accuracy. Do those numbers really say what the city says? Is there another point of view that should have been in the story and isn’t? Is there some piece of historical context that should be included? I know from first-hand experience how diligent Joyce is about accuracy, and that her work guaranteeing it usually stretches right up to the late night deadline when the next morning’s paper is sent off to the presses.

We live in a complicated time, and even locally it is more important than ever that we stay informed. We need to support local journalism and support the Union-Sun & Journal. If you are subscriber, pass on the paper to someone who isn’t. If you are a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, a local business owner, or someone else who has people coming through your doors, get a subscription and keep a US&J on hand for those people to read. If you are a local merchant, advertise in these pages.

This is how we can honor our local paper on its 200th birthday. This is how we can be sure that it continues on into the future, and that as a community, we can see things without either a blindfold or blurred glasses. It is how we keep our community informed.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.

Behind the headlines

In conjunction with its 200th anniversary, the Union-Sun & Journal is undertaking a weekly series that explores the various roles this newspaper plays in the community and in readers’ homes and lives. Look for a new article or essay in this spot every Saturday.

Trending Video

Recommended for you