In a Pennsylvania county, fear and rumor-mongering replace reliable local news

The information gap here in Medford is not much different when compared to the situation in hundreds, if not thousands, of communities across the country. Despite having a population of nearly 60,000 and five reasonably healthy business districts, our Gannett weekly has not had a single full-time staff reporter since the fall of 2019.

So we do what people do everywhere — we rely on a few Facebook groups, Nextdoor and Patch. Of course, there is no substitute for a news source that does the unglamorous work of sitting through governmental meetings (which the weekly does on a piecemeal basis), following neighborhood issues, and keeping tabs on the local police. A lot of times we simply ask questions. Why was a helicopter hovering over the Mystic Lakes? When will everyone be allowed back in the school buildings?

Earlier this week, Brandy Zadrozny wrote a lengthy feature for NBC News about what’s happened in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, have decimated the The Times of Beaver County since acquiring it from local ownership in 2017.

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In particular, residents have turned to a Facebook group called The News Alerts of Beaver County, an occasionally useful forum with 43,000 members that all too often devolves into a cesspool of false rumors about murders, human trafficking and child molesters. Zadrozny writes:

The News Alerts of Beaver County isn’t home base for a gun-wielding militia, and it isn’t a QAnon fever swamp. In fact, the group’s focus on timely and relevant information for a small real-world community is probably the kind that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg envisioned when he pivoted his company toward communities in 2017.

And yet, the kind of misinformation that’s traded in The News Alerts of Beaver County and thousands of other groups just like it poses a unique danger. It’s subtler and in some ways more insidious, because it’s more likely to be trusted. The misinformation — shared in good faith by neighbors, sandwiched between legitimate local happenings and overseen by a community member with no training but good intentions — is still capable of tearing a community apart.

Zadrozny also quotes Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University, who tells her: “In a system with inadequate legitimate local news, they may only be able to get information by posting gossip and having the police correct it. One could argue this is what society will look like if we keep going down this road with less journalism and more police and government social media.”

The area does have an independent website, BeaverCountian.com, which took note of the NBC News story and has won a number of awards for its journalism. But it only posts once every couple of days or so, which isn’t enough for  county with nearly 164,000 people. Something more comprehensive is needed.

What’s at stake is our civic live and our ability to function in a democracy. This is why the fight to save local news is so important.

One thought on “In a Pennsylvania county, fear and rumor-mongering replace reliable local news

  1. Steve Ross

    I note churlishly that I was living in Leonia NJ, one of 70 mostly wealthy communities in uber-wealthy Bergen County. In NJ, county government is small. Each town has a council, school board, planning board, environmental commission.

    The (apt family name) Borg-family-owned Bergen Record was making huge profits in the 1990s. But how to cover 300 meetings a month? That was a clear barrier to making EVEN MORE money and to selling the paper for the fattest possible price.

    Enter Jay Rosen with the idea that readers could do their own coverage. He called it “civic journalism” and pitched it for years. The showcase project was in Tenafly where, after not covering the local school board with reporters for a year, citizens produced a good series, curated by NYU. Never heard from Tenafly schools again in the paper .

    I was on the Leonia planning board at the time. Never saw a Record reporter again. The Record’s top editor catapulted into editorship of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and presided over its downfall.

    I had introduced a dozen members of the Record staff to the World Wide Web during a week-long analytic journalism tutorial I ran at Columbia University in 1993 (using a beta version of U of Illinois graphic web browser, the world’s first). So I guess I’m to blame as well.

    BUT NO! I it was Google and Facebook! They were the icing on the cake. But the industry had already baked the cake, using the cheapest ingredients possible. Some academics helped.

    These towns in Pennsylvania? They were lucky to have real newspapers as long as they did. Grumble.

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