When David and Celia Stein pieced together the first-ever edition of The Riverdale Press in 1950, another newspaper just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was gearing up to celebrate a much different milestone: 100 years of publication.
The Press & Journal debuted in 1854 as the Swatara Gem, and as its more modern owners Joe and Louise Sukle point out, survived the Civil War, two world wars, and multiple economic depressions and recessions. But it couldn’t survive Facebook, Google — and ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic. Just last week, after more than 8,600 editions, the final issue of the Press & Journal rolled off the presses with a headline boldly stating “We are history.”
Up until last week, the Sukles published what had become Pennsylvania’s best newspaper, all with a staff of 20 people. Editors, reporters, advertising, production and design, circulation — each and every one important to creating the very newspaper delivered to mailboxes each week. And while we are all a business filled with people who love doing what they do, we still have to eat, and pay rent, support a family, and maybe even take a vacation once in a while.
How do we pay for all that? Advertising. It’s the lifeblood of what we do, because without advertising, there is no newspaper. The pandemic has hit many businesses hard — and we’ve showcased many of those struggles in these very pages — but we’re not immune to what’s happening.
Yet, just like the Press & Journal and many other community newspapers, we can only watch as advertising dollars are spent with Facebook and Google — which combined are worth more than $1.7 trillion — who in turn ensure none of those dollars ever return to support our local economy.
When was the last time someone saw Mark Zuckerberg chowing down on fried macaroni and cheese at Bronx Alehouse, or Sundar Pichai getting patched up at AFC Urgent Care?
We called the coronavirus pandemic “uncertain times,” and that couldn’t be truer than here at your local newspaper. Yet, at least from an editorial perspective, we only focused on ensuring we brought you every important story we could during the crisis. In fact, we’ve published nearly 200 stories about the coronavirus since the beginning of March, both in print and online. And while the newspaper has shrunk a bit during the pandemic, we keep printing.
But imagine living in Middletown or any of its surrounding Pennsylvania communities, and finding that the newspaper is gone. And the Press & Journal is not alone. In the past 15 years, more than 2,000 newspapers have shuttered in the United States. If each of those newspapers boasted 10,000 subscribers, that’s 20 million Americans who no longer have access to local news.
What does that mean? Your voice is silenced. Literally. There’s no one holding the government accountable. There is no one to shine a light on problems that can be corrected. There is no one to sound the alarm when something bad is coming.
Sure, social media like Facebook and Twitter can help — but only for a quick flash before other topics quickly push it out of sight and out of mind, as many try to speak at once. And rumors don’t answer questions — good journalism does.
How can you help? You’re doing it right now by reading this newspaper, especially if you’re holding our print edition in your hands. By buying it on a newsstand, or subscribing so that it arrives on your doorstep or mailbox. By letting us know when something’s happening in your neighborhood, sharing your opinion, or telling us when you like what we’re doing, or when you don’t.
During the pandemic, many of you have donated a little extra money to help us through. I don’t personally see this list of those who donated, because I never want anyone to think I could have my news judgment influenced by it. But some of you who have donated also sent along notes of gratitude for continuing such a vital resource as a community newspaper. These words touch each and every one of us here at The Riverdale Press, and more than once even moved me to tears.
I’ve spent my entire adult life — and even some of my teen years — as a journalist. I know the power and importance of community journalism. After 27 years, I still wake up every morning ready to make a difference, even if I haven’t had a week working fewer than 90 hours since the pandemic started.
But there is one last way you can help: Encourage your favorite local businesses to advertise in these pages. Yes, doing that can really make a difference. Even for businesses who think they don’t need to advertise — chances are, they probably do, and even if they didn’t, just a few dollars secure some column inches of space is an investment in community journalism. It tells their customers — and our readers — they love where they are, and they want to ensure it stays great thanks to having a strong local newspaper.
The Riverdale Press has such a rich history. Some of New York’s finest journalists have had their work appear here, and that continues to this day. The Press has been here so long, we almost take for granted the belief that it will always be here. But readers in Middletown thought the same about the Press & Journal, and the 2,000 other newspapers that have vanished since 2005.
When I arrived here more than three years ago, I made a promise to each and every one of you that I would continue the long tradition of The Riverdale Press recording history, and making a difference. Still, I have nightmares that someday, I, too, could be forced to write the headline “we are history.”
Don’t let it happen. Your community newspaper depends on it. Your community depends on it.
The author is editor of The Riverdale Press.