Seeing Double: How to Read Local

At Amherst, we know to emphasize eating and buying local. Valentine Dining Hall serves local food from as close as the Book & Plow Farm, and A.J. Hastings and Amherst Books, both independent businesses, are our campus bookstores. What we forget about, however, is reading local.

For example, take a look at the newspapership expenses of the Association of Amherst Students, our student government. Last week, the AAS voted to buy roughly 2,000 digital subscriptions to The New York Times for use by students, adding to our already-existing digital subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal. But we spend next to no money on the local news sources that serve the town of Amherst or the Pioneer Valley.

Students at Amherst don’t have free access to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, or its weekly sister the Amherst Bulletin, both of which run important stories about the town and region in which we live. We don’t support other local news sources in neighboring towns, like the Valley Advocate or Greenfield’s Recorder. And we can’t read the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and other bigger Massachusetts newspapers.

What happens in our local community affects us, no matter how insulated Amherst College might seem from the rest of the town and valley. Local stories cover our neighbors, events happening down the street and proposed additions to our community. Local news is what connects us to the world around us. We buy pizza from Antonio’s and books from Amherst Books, but we are still not truly in a community with the people working in Amherst or the people who live here year-round. Local newspapers build these connections and invest us in the wellbeing of the Amherst community at large.

Of course, national journalism has its place and purpose. I’ve written previously in this paper about the real impacts of national politics on campus, and national papers cover those issues with resources that local papers don’t have. But The New York Times and Wall Street Journal can’t overcome the fact that their presence in communities around America is ephemeral and story-driven. And I have yet to see any stories about affordable housing proposals in Amherst, the destruction of the North Village apartments for UMass graduate students and families or the LGBTQ Fall Film Fest in Northampton coming up on Sept. 21 in those national news behemoths.

The families living in the North Village are our neighbors, whether or not we’ve met them, and we should be concerned with the events that affect them.

The same is true nationally. Local newspapers bring together communities across deep divides and contribute to a shared sense of ownership over where we live. In news deserts — counties with no local news publications — median incomes and rates of college and high school graduation are lower, while poverty is more common. When local newspapers close, local government costs increase due to a lack of accountability.

And yet, one in five American newspapers have closed in the past 15 years. Other newspapers have converted from dailies to weeklies, substantially tightening their budgets and becoming ghosts of their former selves. Many are bought by massive, national chains: 25 of the biggest chains own one-third of all American newspapers and two-thirds of the nation’s dailies. These mergers and acquisitions hurt the public’s trust in local news and contribute to lower readership. Acquisitions also move ownership of the paper out of the areas where they operate, so the owners have no stake in the community. As of now, 171 counties have no local newspaper. More than 2,000 have no daily paper. Still more have daily papers owned and operated by national chains. In Western Massachusetts, we’re lucky to have a vibrant local news scene. We should make use of it and ensure it sticks around.

The AAS should fund digital subscriptions to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, our local newspaper, for all students. Right now, a paywall prevents us from reading more than five articles each month. To integrate Amherst College more closely into the surrounding community, we should support our local news. The AAS should also look into getting students access to larger, state-level newspapers like the Herald and Globe. Yes, these newspapers don’t serve our immediate community as well as the Gazette. Instead, they help us understand what’s going on at the state level and national level as viewed from Massachusetts.

Our campus newspaper, The Amherst Student, should work with the Gazette to sum up the most important news of the week in a “week in review” article. Right now, most of the reporting in The Student is focused on the college. To accurately reflect our lives, The Student should include reporting on the broader community. To this end, The Student should also run more original stories focused on local news. Last year’s reporting on Hampshire College was excellent, informative and important — we need more.

I can’t talk about local news without also mentioning the importance of campus news. The Student does great work, but that work is often inaccessible. With more help, The Student could improve its digital presence and require less out of each individual while still producing a great final product. It takes a lot of work to publish a newspaper, especially one in print and online, and The Student struggles to recruit staff. Other newspapers pay their staff. The student journalists, editors and web designers at The Student should be compensated like their colleagues.

In 1822, James Madison wrote that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Two centuries later, he’s still right. Local news is our only way to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in our own communities. We don’t live national lives, despite how important those dynamics can be. Just like it’s better for Amherst when Val serves local food, it’s better for us all when local newspapers are given the resources and readership they need to thrive.