Chris Powell: As civic life and local news media decline, why keep slogging on?

How many more press runs?

How many more press runs?

When the Journal Inquirer, of Manchester, Conn.,  merged the weekly newspapers in Rockville, South Windsor, and East Windsor, Conn., and went daily in August 1968, its premise, like the premises of the Connecticut newspapers that had been started long before, was that people wanted local news. The Hartford newspapers serving the growing suburbs to the north and east were not providing much of it. For 25 years the upstart's circulation grew steadily and two of its competitors closed, in large part because they lacked local news. 

Back then Connecticut, literate and prosperous, had the highest per-capita newspaper readership in the country. But for most of the last 25 years newspaper circulation throughout the country and in Connecticut has declined, even for the most local of papers. 

This is commonly blamed on the rise of the Internet, but recent surveys suggest it is something else. They find that most people are not using the Internet much to obtain local and state news, that most of the news sought on the Internet is national and world news, that there isn't so much interest even in that news, and that most use of the internet is not for news but for social contact, shopping, and amusement. 

While newspapers and their internet sites remain the primary providers of local and state news, it seems that interest in such news has collapsed.

Indeed, the collapse of interest in local and state news may correlate less with the rise of the Internet than with the collapse of civic engagement generally as indicated by measures like voter participation. 

Census and voter registration figures suggest that even in Connecticut about 25 percent of the eligible adult population doesn't even register  to vote. As a result, actual voter participation is probably only 50 percent of the eligible population for presidential elections, a third for state elections, and around 10 percent for municipal elections.

For example, far more people voted in Manchester's town election in 1962 than in its town election in 2017, though the town's population is 40 percent larger.

That is, newspaper readership, like voter participation, is mainly a matter of demographics. The more literate, self-sufficient, and engaged with public life people are, the more they read newspapers. The less literate, self-sufficient, and engaged with public life people are, the less they read newspapers -- and the demographics of Connecticut and the whole country are declining fast. 

No one needs newspapers for keeping up with the Kardashians.

Trouble for newspapers is not the worst of it. Democracy and the country are in jeopardy.

So someone who has spent 50 years at a newspaper in Connecticut may be permitted his discouragement. The civic engagement business was never lucrative, but now nearly all local- and state-oriented newspapers struggle to survive. 

As the state's economic and demographic decline accelerates, knowledge of Connecticut's past, present, and public policy has lost all financial value except for those who would use it to extract the last scraps of patronage and graft from the state's hapless and insolvent government.

Of course many lives are always wasted, but what kind of future awaits Connecticut when most of its high school graduates never master high school English and math, much public college instruction is remedial, and most people cannot identify the state's three branches of government? (You know -- the teacher unions, the lawyers, and the liquor stores.) Maybe Dire Straits was right:

I shudda learned to play the guitar.
I shudda learned to play them drums. ...
Maybe get a blister on your little finger.
Maybe get a blister on your thumb.

Some pensioners wear T-shirts inscribed: "I'm retired. Having fun is my job." They may have earned their fun, and old folks remain the best newspaper readers, but how much attention are even they paying to Connecticut these days, especially since so many of them are moving to warmer and less-taxed jurisdictions, as even the state's most recent former governor has done? 

While everyone of a certain age is entitled to a little time out of the winter cold, for a former governor to leave the state is also demoralizing, and a warning too. 

For many state residents have nowhere else to go, nor, as Bing Crosby and Judy Garland sang, do they want to abandon Connecticut despite the damage being done to it:

Circled the globe dozens of times.
Seen all its wonders, known all its climes.
I've searched it with a fine-tooth comb
And found that I only have one home, sweet home.
Connecticut always will be my home.

Still, after so much time in the news business it can be difficult not to view much of what is reported as trivial or a cliche, as T.S. Eliot did even before the era of "weather every 10 seconds."

You will see me any morning in the park
Reading the comics and the sporting page. 
Particularly I remark:
An English countess goes upon the stage, 
A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance, 
Another bank defaulter has confessed.

Of course while the news is repetitive it is not all trivial to the people directly involved, and it usually involves different people, who make it new, though they may no longer care as much about appearing in print as they care about appearing on "social media," where news tends to be less about wars and rumors of wars than boyfriends, girlfriends, relatives, and pets.

So what is the point of staying in the newspaper business? Maybe only spite. It might be hard to let certain people in what is left of the state's public life think that no one was on to them.

Fare thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours. I'm done with mine.

Chris Powell will retire Monday as managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester. He plans to continue writing columns for Connecticut  newspapers and New England Diary.