This series is copublished with The Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School.
This is the story of four towns that have little in common but the loss of the newspapers they once knew. Two saw their newspapers die. Two have watched as papers that were once thick and thriving struggled to survive.
Hundreds of American communities have lost or experienced the shrinking of their newspapers, a particular crisis at this moment in the nation’s history, as perhaps the most fraught and consequential presidential election in memory approaches.
When newspapers vanish or shrink the civic conversation withers. Stories stop being told. Yet the stories are there, waiting to be discovered and shared. Conversations don’t die in these news deserts or news ghost towns, as these communities have come to be known. Instead they get shorter and less urgent, because it is hard to ask, “Did you hear?” when no one has, and when no one can reply, “Yes I read about it this morning in the…”
The story of the 2020 election campaign, meanwhile, is being told, as campaign always have been, in big sweeping terms—through polling; dispatches from the campaign trail, and in the reports from “flyover country” by a reporter from one of the national news outlets who spends a week or so trying to “take the pulse” of a community. There is punditry, too, and commentary, and a good many off-the-record comments in the mix from political operatives who will go on the record only to offer anodyne quotes about the state of the campaign or their candidate’s fortunes.
There are towns that can tell significant pieces of the story of America in 2020, but where those illuminating stories are no longer being told, or told as fully as they once were.
And while this work is hard and often well done, political reporters can find themselves caught in a competitive cycle in which the hunt for news, especially when it plays into a horse race narrative, can obscure what is more subtle, and perhaps more significant. The result is that the coverage risks failing to capture the state of things, as was made clear in 2016 when the nation woke up on the morning after Donald Trump’s election asking, “How did that happen?” It became clear almost overnight that not only had so many missed the story, but that perhaps the reason they had was having not been in a position to see it fully.
The story of 2016, like the story of most every presidential election, was just that, a story—a narrative with an arc and drama and characters who, as the tension builds, reveal ever more about themselves and the people who flock to them. We know this in part because in the months after every election some of the wise and talented journalists who covered the campaign recount what they saw in books that, drawing on the model of Theodore H. White’s series “The Making of the President,” step back to see it whole, not as a series of daily dispatches or hourly tweets but as a single coherent tale.
But what if the narratives of an election could be told not in retrospect but in real time, so that readers might get a better sense of what is taking place around them? What if there was an additional way to tell the story, one that is not frenetic — who’s up, who’s down; new poll; rally at 8 and we’ll carry it live! – but unrolls slowly, over time, the way stories unfold in our daily lives?. How would you tell it? Where would you go? Through whose eyes would we see it?
No one place can claim to tell America’s story. Yet there are communities that when taken together, can create a mosaic of views that can capture a good deal of what Americans have on their minds, and in their hearts, as election day nears.
They are towns where the drama is high because the outcome is in doubt. They are places shaped by the forces that propel the national conversation: race, immigration, income inequality, climate change, futures made terrifyingly uncertain by addiction, poverty, hopelessness, and fear. Fear of many things—among them the prospect that not only that your candidate will lose, but that his or her opponent will win.
There are towns that can tell significant pieces of the story of America in 2020, but where those illuminating stories are no longer being told, or told as fully as they once were. The storytellers, however, remain. They are men and women who know their communities intimately, as only someone who spent years living there and covering them can. They are the men and women for whom the great disruptive forces that have upended journalism have taken a considerable toll: the loss of their newsrooms; the loss of their jobs.
These are the stories of four such communities: McKeesport, Pennsylvania; Bowling Green, Virginia; McAllen, Texas; and Macon, Georgia. McKeesport and Bowling Green both lost their newspapers. McAllen and Macon’s newspapers endure, but are not as they were.
McAllen, Texas sits in the Rio Grande Valley, deep in South Texas on the border with Mexico—a region of 1.6 million people, mostly Hispanic, where there is no local NPR station, writes Sandra Sanchez, who was the opinion editor of the local paper, The Monitor. She is now a correspondent for BorderReport.com, which covers life along the southern border. The voting demographic is mostly Democratic, but the ruling and upper class, as she put it, “are overtly Republican.”
In the 1980s, McKeesport, Pennsylvania became one of the earliest victims of the contraction of America’s manufacturing sector—and it’s never really recovered, writes Jason Togyer, who was a reporter for the McKeesport Daily News, and who now runs a nonprofit news website, Tube City Online. Located about 12 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the city’s population has gone from a World War II-era high of 55,000 to about 19,000 today. A small pipe mill now employs fewer than 200 people. Before its demise, The Daily News saw its circulation drop from around 40,000 to 7,000 before it folded in 2015 after 131 years. On an electoral map McKeesport appears as a blue dot surrounded by a sea of red.
Macon, Georgia is a midsized city that thinks it’s a small town, writes Charles Richardson, the former editorial page editor and columnist at the Macon Telegraph. “Like many places in the South, issues of race can quickly arise during any point of conflict in Macon.” Though the city is full of stately historic homes and downtown brims with restaurants and toney lofts, just a few blocks away are blighted areas that, he writes, “are difficult to ignore.” It is a place where you are considered a true “Maconite” only “if you are a native or if your grandmother was born here, and where people are distrustful of outsiders and their ideas.”
And then there is Bowling Green, Virgina, the seat of Caroline County. It’s quiet, rolling, mostly rural, 20 percent currently being farmed, and with a few new gated communities thrown into the mix, writes Greg Glassner, who was the editor and columnist for the Caroline Progress before it went out business in 2018 after 99 years. He writes, “It has been said that the only three topics that draw a crowd here are guns, dogs, and football.” In 2008 and again in 2012, Caroline County voted for Barack Obama. Then, in 2016, it became one of only five counties in Virginia to pivot, and vote for Donald Trump.
Each week until Election Day, we will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns.
Tomorrow: Chapter One, “The Mystery of Caroline County”