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What Happens When a Newspaper Dies?

By John W. Miller at The Daily Yonder

Photo by Museums Victoria / Unsplash

The Daily News of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1884 and opened its iconic art deco headquarters in 1938. By the early 1970s, the newspaper had over 45,000 subscribers and around 130 employees. Its slogan: “More than a newspaper, a community institution.”

It closed at the end of 2015, and that’s when Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University and a former staffer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, started reporting.

His new book, Death of the Daily News, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022)  is a rich, fascinating, and necessary anatomy of what a town goes through in the years after its newspaper dies, how it looks at what was lost, and how some people are trying to build a new kind of local journalism.

McKeesport, Pennsylvania, population 20,000, sits on the Monongahela River. While it’s close enough to Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, population 1.3 million, to attract journalists, they generally only come when something bad happens. As in smaller, more rural areas, the only kind of professional journalistic treatment the town gets comes with parachutes. These places “are part of the coverage area, but no, the journalists are not telling a full story of what happens on the ground,” he told me.

And that is the main point of Conte’s book. A newspaper, he argues, is more than a watchdog, although it is also that. It’s a form of social capital and as fundamental to a community’s functioning as roads, parks, and pools. Newspapers also cost money, and it’s no accident, says Conte, “that news deserts are often correlated with food deserts.”

It wasn’t always so. In the years after World War II, McKeesport was an essential part of U.S. Steel’s steel-making empire. National Tube Works had opened in 1872 to make pipes out of iron and then steel, earning McKeesport the nickname “Tube City.”

In 1947, two young senators named Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy visited, because, as Conte recounts, McKeesport was “the economic and spiritual center of the Monongahela River Valley and home to one hundred thousand unionized industrial workers.”

The two future presidents appeared before a civic group to debate new labor laws. There’s still a statue of Kennedy in McKeesport, to commemorate a speech he made there to 25,000 people in October, 1962, days before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the 1940s, McKeesport was home to the corporate headquarters of G.C. Murphy, a five-and-dime store, as well as “a half dozen movie theaters, several furniture stores, and jewelry shops, and more than seven hundred retail stores, including three big department stores—Cox’s, Jaison’s, and Imel’s.” (It’s not just the local paper that modern American chain capitalism has wrecked. Ponder, for a second, the fate of all those family-owned businesses.)

Then in the 1970s came a decline. Factories closed. For a while, the newspaper stuck around. As late as 2000, the Daily News employed 10 reporters.

But while it could survive deindustrialization, it couldn’t survive the internet.

At the end of 2015, the newspaper printed the last of its 40,000 editions. “On the morning of January 1, 2016, for the first time in exactly 131 years and 6 months, residents of McKeesport woke up without a local daily newspaper of their own: The final edition of the Daily News had rolled off the presses inside the newspaper’s art deco building with a boldface headline reading, ‘Thanks, Mon Valley.’”

The best part of Conte’s research is his deep conversations with political leaders and other non-journalists about what they’d lost.

Read the rest at The Daily Yonder