Tuesday, February 15, 2011

With Media Consolidation Comes The Death Of Local Papers, But Who Cares?! Madison Eagle.

The Good: Some decent reporting of local news.
The Bad: A lot of fluff, Utterly unnecessary
The Basics: A pretty banal local publication, the Madison Eagle blends the newspapers which used to make up the local news scene with little loss of substance.

As a devoted liberal in the United States of America, there are certain "party line" issues I am supposed to care a lot about, but I just can't seem to get up the enthusiasm to care about. I mean, there are a lot of things we as individuals ought to stand up for and stand for and I do a pretty good job of lending my voice to human rights causes, economic justice causes, civil rights legislation, and voting right issues. I'm a huge antiwar buff and I care a LOT about the environment (even in my food reviews, I rail against packaging that is not environmentally sound). So, when it comes down to some of the other issues, like media consolidation, it's hard for me to get my proverbial panties in a bunch.

I, of course, understand the principle behind the dangers of media consolidation. I am a big advocate for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but I'm enough of an anti-capitalist to stand by the idea that the moment advertising revenue determined the way news was spread, Freedom Of The Press was seriously compromised (yes, I'm one of those nuts who believes that the Internet ought to remain free and that if some untouchable amount of tax money went to pay for newspaper production and distribution, that America would be more free than it is now). The moment the Federal government could cut funding to things like PBS and independent newspapers had to charge money and sell more space to advertisers than report the news, Freedom Of The Press went on life support. So now, when local newspapers die a horrible death and are bought out by media conglomerates, I see this as more an inevitable result of rampant capitalism than a legitimate threat to our freedoms.

Moreover, in my personal experience, media consolidation has taken the most banal possible route. I live in a very rural area and a few years back, all of the little town newspapers, like the Oneida Press, Canastota Bee Journal , Chittenango Times, and The Cazenovia Republican were bought out by a media conglomerate, Eagle Newspapers. Now, all of the independent papers in the county that were bought out have been assimilated into the Madison County Eagle, a weekly newspaper which is as long as any of the independent newspapers were before the shuttered and includes virtually identical content. As a result of the way the Eagle newspapers slowly shifted their focus from each locality within the county to the broader region before making the outright switch, readers were pretty much prepared for the change. And the change, honestly, is pretty minimal.

After all, Chittenango, Canastota and Cazenovia are all villages in Upstate New York and Oneida is the largest city in Madison County with a little over 20,000 people living there. The local industries are Diemolding, Owl Wire, Hood Dairy, Bryne Dairy, the Utica School Of Commerce and Cazenovia College. Beyond that, it is a place for antiquers to stop on their way to Madison (home of a massive yearly antique extravaganza that draws people from all over the world). In other words, the Madison County Eagle has no problem covering all the news about the county in a week without readers feeling cheated, though even now, I find the newspaper to be more fluff than I would like.

Owned by Eagle Newspapers, the Madison Eagle is a weekly newspaper, usually arriving on Tuesdays to residents throughout Madison County, a rural county just East of Syracuse, NY. There are no buildings here over four stories high (save the hospital and nursing home in Oneida) and there are seldom issues that anyone outside the County cares about which happen within the county. The Madison Eagle is free and is distributed at local businesses and at the public library, but actually costs money to subscribe to and have it delivered. At the places where one must purchase the Madison Eagle, it now costs fifty cents an issue. The staff of the Madison Eagle is friendly and they put a lot of heart into the publication. This is, on average, a twenty page newspaper with a twelve page Classified supplement.

How is it that there is so much to write on a weekly basis about the small villages in Madison County? Honestly, there isn't. The issue I perused for this review was twenty pages. Of that, over least seven pages worth of printed space were used for advertisements. Almost all of the advertisements are for places within Madison County, so the newspaper has the feeling that Madison County is somehow the center of the world (it is not, though!).

The Madison Eagle covers the essentials right up front: local elections, issues at each of the Mayors' offices, and the current news from the college and local businesses. Every few months, there will be a vandalism rash or a fire and that gets the front page. The front page is very much the local news from Madison County, including things like the Oz Fest (Chittenango's yearly tribute to L. Frank Baum) and graduation weekend in Cazenovia, but by the time the issue is printed, it is usually already been talked about in the local supermarket.

Inside, the paper has a schedule of current events coming to Madison County for the next week, with a few notes on events further out if space permits. This is the only area where the media consolidation is truly hurting the locals; library programs within the county get far less coverage in the Madison Eagle than they did in prior incarnations of the newspaper. The Madison Eagle keeps locals informed about programs coming to some of the libraries and about dinners at local churches. Then comes a page of community events and whenever anyone is promoted at the Oneida Savings Bank, it is proudly announced here. So, too, are the comings of new pastors and notes of any problems with the local water supply. When Dean's Lists are announced at colleges, locals write back to their parents, who proudly get it noted in the paper.

Then comes the pages of Opinions. This is where the locals write in about current politics in the area and it oscillates between the serious and underread and the laughable, though the Madison Eagle's editors do pretty well by letting anyone have a voice here. Strangely, a new column has popped up in the last few years that simply reprints stories from over a hundred years ago. Playing to the nostalgia audience, these articles tend to have their dates only as a footnote and those of us who have not lived in Madison County forever end up baffled about events that we're sure we should have seen (like a flood, fire, murder, etc.). If there are elections, the newspaper tries to give equal space to interviews with each candidates.

Here, though, is where the Madison Eagle is lacking, at least in terms of substance. As people consider new trustees and mayoral candidates, one has to wonder what the relevance is of asking a question like "What's a fun fact voters might want to know about you?" It's never answered by something like "Well, I intend to raise a solar farm to power my cow-smashing device when we launch an attack on our neighbors to the north!" This being "wholesome Americana," the answer is always something safe about how much they love their family. It is not real hard-hitting journalism.

The local celebrity for the Madison Eagle is the writer of the column grousing about the world outside Madison County and he is followed by a lot of readers. Other local columnists include a young woman who left Madison County for college and has been writing about her experiences since and our State Senator.

The local sports teams are covered by a single writer who manages to get to everything and takes photographs as well. He documents well the events of each game and I am sure there are locals who clip his columns when they are mentioned.

As well, there are obituaries and columns by the local pastors. Here's where I have a real issue: columns are required to need a local slant, but local pastors essentially reprint their sermons without any bent toward Madison County. But politics are severely edited because it somehow needs to be relevant. In this way, media conglomeration has hurt the locals because informing readers of larger issues neglected by the mainstream press are not covered in this publication any longer, nor are the voices of local pundits heard here.

Perhaps newspapers like the Madison Eagle work for people who have a truly intimate sense of the size of the world, but as a big picture person, I find it to be utterly unnecessary. Nothing was lost, either in terms of cultural or historical value, when Eagle Media bought out and consolidated the local papers from Madison County. This is a small area filled with small towns and rather than interface with the larger world, publications like the Madison Eagle help the community feel more insular and Eagle Media is only continuing a trend that the papers it bought started with. They just do the same thing with more advertisements!

The Madison Eagle is a newspaper that adequately keeps the villages and city in Madison County, New York informed of local events and news, but it is hardly earthshattering reading or worthwhile to those who look at the big picture. In fact, it falls down even for those who want to look at how small town America might interface with the rest of the state or the nation.

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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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