BEDFORD, Pa. — While efficiently running the elegant hotel dining room, Traci Smithmyer briefly glances at the stacks of newspapers available for patrons to look over as they take their table for breakfast. The petite brunette wrinkles her nose as she glances at the headlines from the Washington Post, New York Times and USA Today. “It’s just so different from our local newspaper,” she says.
She’s right. The Bedford Gazette and Altoona Mirror, sitting in stacks alongside the “big guys,” make no mention of the latest outrages concerning President Trump. Which isn’t to say those stories aren’t important, but it points to one undervalued aspect of the country’s alienation from national media.
Local and state governments often function as intermediary institutions that can be more responsive to local needs than the federal government. Local newspapers long performed a similar role. But for areas of the country where local papers have been left behind, the void is palpable.
The Bedford Gazette is the oldest continuously published newspaper in Pennsylvania, dating back to 1805. Its circulation is now 9,000 in a county of 49,000. It, like other area papers — the Altoona Mirror, Somerset Daily American and the Erie Times-News — has lost circulation, though none of the papers would give me the exact figure. (Some appear to have lost about half of their peak circulation.) Other competitors are long gone.
On a day last week when the Page 1 story in the national papers was Trump’s rambling and combative press conference, the Bedford Gazette ran with three local stories above the fold and a piece on Sen. Pat Toomey holding a town-hall meeting two counties over. Both are legitimate and interesting coverage choices. But they should complement each other.
Used to be that you consumed your news from a local reporter who lived in your community and covered events from a perspective you recognized. Today, as more and more local newspapers die, that relationship has evaporated.
And folks are going to be less trusting of a reporter who works and lives in a cosmopolitan culture that has no connection with them. There’s no social consequence or contract because reporters and readers don’t have much in common.
And politics reflects the culture, so pols increasingly retreat to the “safe spaces” of their preferred national media organizations.
Floyd Macheska, a small-business owner in West Newton, Pa., says the problem is all relative to your experiences. “We do not share a unified space between ourselves and the media. They do not trust us because they cannot understand why we voted for Trump,” he said. “In turn, we do not trust them to treat him with fairness. Or us, for that matter.”
Macheska likes Trump. He admits he is rough and not very strategic, “but that is what we voted for,” he said. “He is never going to make the Washington press corps very happy, or people who do communications for a living, that’s just the facts.”
The way he sees it, if the press would just dispassionately report on Trump and keep him honest, the balance would return. “If the press fundamentally thinks there is something actionable he is going to do to them, like curtail the rights of the press, then for goodness sakes investigate that.” But they’re exhausted by the perpetual outrage.
All of which makes a key point: Coverage of Trump is often treated as a proxy for how the press thinks of Trump’s supporters. That might be unfair to national reporters chasing down a controversial president. But the disconnect is exacerbated by the fact that far too many Americans don’t have a local press that understands them, and thus all their news comes with a heap of condescension.
Reporters don’t like it when these voters talk down “the media,” as if they’re all part of one monolithic blob. But to those who used to have local news and reporters who lived among them, that’s precisely what the national press is.
Reporters, then, must invert the classic environmentalist trope of “Think globally, act locally.” At the very least, to bridge the yawning trust gap, journalists — even those who act globally — should think locally.