The decline of local press and reporters is bad news for the public

2014 is the year the bottom dropped out on the local press
Illustration by Peter Noonan

Looking back on 2014, the biggest New Hampshire political change is the local press. There was no moment that changed it all. What happened in the past year was simply the continuation of a trend from the last 20 years, but 2014 was the year that the bottom fell out.

At one point it appeared that the state’s three longest-serving political reporters would all leave the industry within a matter of weeks. After 30-plus years at the Union Leader, John DiStaso left the paper. Norma Love of the Associated Press retired. Then The Telegraph’s new corporate owners decided they would no longer cover the Statehouse, and as a result laid off their most prominent journalist who did just that, Kevin Landrigan. A dozen years ago there were roughly 10 reporters who had to share a cramped Statehouse press room. Today only the Union Leader’s Garry Rayno is in the room and he works part-time.

These were the changes that got the most notice, but there were also big changes for those who documented their local communities. Rod Doherty, the longtime editor of Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, retired. The Union Leader and the Concord Monitor both had three different managing editors this year. One of the Monitor’s editors, Felice Belman, was the heart and soul of the place, but left for The Boston Globe. Also at the Monitor, their longest-employed reporter Annmarie Timmins decided to change careers. And in a move creating whiplash, the liberal Monitor editorial page is now run by someone who just worked at the conservative Union Leader.

"A national study showed that the number of journalists who are assigned to cover statehouses declined by 35 percent."

The Portsmouth Herald’s most beloved reporter left journalism to get a pay raise. The publisher of The Telegraph is now at the Keene Sentinel.

Online there are fewer outlets as well. The collection of local Patch websites that served 13 communities are now essentially closed in 2014. There are fewer local blogs covering the day-to-day of New Hampshire news than there were a year ago.

These changes — and the overall decrease in journalists — are not unique to New Hampshire. A national study by  Pew Research showed that, from 2003 to 2014, the number of journalists covering statehouses declined by 35 percent. Of the 300 or so journalists who are assigned to cover statehouses, less than half do so full-time.

But it is not all bad news locally. In 2014, we also saw the second attempt of a second television news station based in Concord (that hired Landrigan), public radio is healthy and aggressive, and Boston news outlets from the Boston Globe to NECN are increasing resources for state coverage. There were three different televised debates for the state’s US Senate race, more than anyone can remember in recent history.

As we begin a new year, the focus will be on the newly elected leaders and the new political dynamics, as it should be. Though what will also be important is how the local press does its job and how many people are helping to deliver it.

Categories: Politics