One of the first questions they ask callers to the Sewickley Township offices in Westmoreland County is, did you mean to call the other place? You know, Sewickley Borough, 40 miles west in Allegheny County, along the Ohio River with its Rockwellian village, tony retail stores and charming restaurants.
Sewickley Township, located between West Newton and New Stanton, spreads out across 27 square miles of mostly rural countryside. It has fewer residents per square mile than its counterpart, its people make less money and their home values are just a fraction of those in the other place.
Another deficit is that Sewickley Township has not had a beat reporter covering the community for years.
The local newspaper, the Times-Sun based out of West Newton, went out of business in 2016. The Tribune-Review in Greensburg typically sends a reporter only when there’s something controversial, like three years ago when a photo surfaced showing a KKK flag in the township’s public works garage.
Most of the time, no journalists pay attention to the community’s regular business.
The other Sewickley still has a weekly newspaper, The Sewickley Herald, owned by Trib Total Media. Because it sits closer to Pittsburgh, it also benefits from regional coverage, such as a story in the Post-Gazette about its garden tour.
These kinds of differences are becoming common across the U.S., according to a new study by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Places with thriving commercial districts and wealthier residents tend to have more local news coverage.
Declining local news coverage
The U.S. has lost on average two newspapers per week, or 2,500, since 2004, the report found. Some 70 million Americans now live in a so-called “news desert,” or a place that has little to no original news coverage by a professional journalist.
Many other places have seen local news coverage shrink, such as here in Pittsburgh where we used to have two printed daily newspapers and now only have the Post-Gazette in print on Thursdays and Sundays. The Tribune-Review still prints daily in Greensburg and Tarentum.
In a twist, The Villages retirement community in Florida now boasts one of the largest circulation print newspapers with more subscribers than outlets in Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
“What worries me the most is that we have a growing divide in the U.S. around journalism that mirrors the divide we have politically, culturally, economically and even digitally,” Penny Abernathy, the lead study’s researcher, says. “The loss of news creates a crisis for not only our democracy but for society and community cohesion.”
In communities like Sewickley Township, the crisis in local news means that residents are losing touch and that political leaders face little accountability. People who attend public meetings often get frustrated and lost because they do not understand what’s going on. The government posts its meeting agendas and notes, but no one reports out the nuances or background information.
At the same time, people who are ill-informed share their opinions on social media — but often get the facts wrong.
The Medill report articulates at the national level what many of us are seeing at the local level: We don’t have as many journalists covering our communities, asking questions and digging for answers. Massive disruption to local news threatens to undermine the fabric of places where we live, both in large ways, such as when politicians are cheating the system, and in small ones, such as finding out about community events.
Even so, the news is not all bad. In my forthcoming book, “Death of the Daily News,” I make the case that we all have a role to play now. If no journalists remain to tell the stories of where we live, we must take up the work on our own. That can be a difficult task, and people often get the news wrong by missing facts, sharing irrelevant information and lacing their comments with personal bias.
To preserve our American democracy and protect our communities, all of us must first recognize that as citizen gatekeepers to local information, we play a critical role: Our tweets and posts make up our local knowledge base, for better and worse.
Then, we must all commit to doing a better job of collecting and sharing accurate, objective news that informs the people around us.
A look at the 2 Sewickleys
Sewickley Township, Westmoreland County
Median household income: $63,876
Bachelor’s degree or higher: 17.5%
Median value of owner-occupied housing: $158,800
Land area square miles: 26.76
Population per square mile: 211
Sewickley Borough, Allegheny County
Median household income: $78,897
Bachelor’s Degree or higher: 61.8%
Median value of owner-occupied housing: $396,900
Land area square miles: 1.12
Population per square mile: 3,488