Last week I had a real pleasure — I was asked to speak to a group of students taking a journalism class at UMass, my alma mater.

My old friend Maureen Turner, an excellent reporter who wrote for the Valley Advocate for years when the publication was in its prime, teaches part-time at the university.

This is the second consecutive year she has asked me to talk to her students, so I guess I didn’t harm them too much last year.

I told them war stories, offered advice, answered questions and tried to shock them a bit — the latter to elicit some laughs.

Some of the students want to go into reporting about sports while others were interested in arts and entertainment reporting. There were several interested in news.

It was a spirited discussion that went about two hours.

It always gives me some hope when I do get a chance to meet students in which the desire to work in mass communications burns brightly.

What concerns me, though, is the health of local journalism in particular. Now I’m happy to say The Reminder is doing well and is delivering needed local news to many communities and is a vital advertising tool for businesses. That is not the case in other markets.

The Wall Street Journal recently released a story about “ghost” newspapers. In this case it’s a small-town publication called “The Gleaner” in Henderson, KY. It doesn’t have an office and doesn’t have a full-time staff. The paper reprints stories from other Gannett newspapers, which owns “The Gleaner,” and uses freelancers for a handful of local stories.

The Wall Street Journal story mentions Penelope Muse Abernathy, a professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina, who has done much research about the expanding news desert that exists.

Her research shows that 200 counties in our nation do not have a local newspaper and half of them have only one newspaper, usually a weekly.

Oh, don’t worry you might say, there’s local news on the web. That will take the place of a local ‘paper.

No, it won’t and doesn’t.

According to her research, the United States has lost more than 2,100 newspapers with about 500 local or state digital news sites filling that void.
According to her report, Massachusetts is in better shape than many other states, but the media landscape is not what it used to be.

A report issued in 2020 by Abernathy is dire indeed. She wrote, “In only two decades, successive technological and economic assaults have destroyed the for-profit business model that sustained local journalism in this country for two centuries. Hundreds of news organizations – century-old newspapers as well as nascent digital sites – have vanished. By early 2020, many survivors were hanging on by the slimmest of profit margins. Then, the coronavirus hit.”

She continued, “We can measure the loss of local news in recent years in two ways: the loss of newspapers and the loss of journalists. In the 15 years leading up to 2020, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers disappeared, leaving residents in thousands of communities – inner-city neighborhoods, suburban towns and rural villages – living in vast news deserts. Simultaneously, half of all local journalists disappeared, as round after round of layoffs have left many surviving papers — the gutsy dailies and weeklies that had won accolades and Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting — mere ‘ghosts,’ or shells of their former selves. Compounding the problem, there has been a lack of capital and funding available to support a variety of for-profit, nonprofit and publicly funded news organizations attempting to thwart the rise of news deserts.”

Local journalism matters. What this newspaper does, if I can be so bold to say as its former executive editor, is what I call “ground level journalism.” That’s local issues about government, schools, arts, entertainment, businesses and people. The topics are those things that are genuinely the first in line to affect our lives.

In this market commercial radio stations do very little in news. The FCC used to require news and public affairs content but that has eroded greatly. Our local PBS station has eliminated its local TV programming, which is a true shame. Thankfully they are maintaining the radio programming.

Cable access stations, such as those in Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, Amherst and Northampton, just to name a few, are filling in much of that local content. Focus Springfield, for which I work part-time, did hours of candidate information for the last election.

The danger is that people are not getting vital information and no, forums on social media are no substitute for professional committed journalism.

So, while I fear for those students who want to enter this field and fight the good fight, I think there is room for more weekly newspapers, more local news websites and podcasts and more cable access programming.

Maybe I’m hopeful after all.