The Need for a Town Square

By Rebecca Meluch

Growing up I thought I needed to be a doctor. When I first came to DePaul, I enrolled as a biology major, pre-medicine student. I idly walked to science classes, studied for exams, and went to lab. But after an entire year, I realized writing lab reports was the only thing I enjoyed in my major. I had a knack for explaining what I observed and documenting it for others to understand. I realized I could maybe make a career out of that. The summer before my sophomore year I changed my major to journalism.

It was quite a large leap going from pre-med to journalism, but when I wrote my first story that was published, I knew that I made the right choice.

I only wish that I knew sooner.

Students enrolled in DePaul’s journalism program, many –– not all –– came to college knowing they wanted to major in journalism. They either wrote for their high schools’ publications, took journalism classes as juniors and seniors, or grew up reading their local newspapers. They had knowledge and background in the field, and maybe some local journalists they already respected. I did not.

I grew up in a small city called Olmsted Falls, on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. When I was in high school and prepared to digest the news, we didn’t have any dependable local journalism outlets. My school didn’t offer any journalism classes, and our school paper was wildly ignored. It’s only now as a college senior that I learned my high school had a paper in the first place.

Cleveland was once prized with The Plain Dealer –– it’s version of The Chicago Tribune. I remember as a child seeing my mom and dad hand pages back and forth to each other, my mom mostly for the coupons, my dad for the sports. I remember passing The Plain Dealer’sgigantic office building on Tiedeman Road whenever my family hopped on the turnpike to take a trip downtown.

Looking from it on the outside, I would have never been able to see how as every year passed, fewer and fewer bodies, journalists and editors took up that gigantic space.

In the early 2000’s The Plain Dealer employed over 350 writers and editors. By 2020, the 179-year-old newspaper employed zero.

The rise of the internet, advertising costs, union busting, lack of readership and distrust in the news –– all ultimately led to The Plain Dealer’s decline.

As The Plain Dealer first began to tear away in ashes, rose. It’s a mediocre at best, online only, lesser quality, non-unionized news site that barely covers Cleveland’s small towns and lacks the coverage on beats The Dealer once had.

My hometown of Olmsted Falls lost the coverage The Dealer once gave, we lost what my parents used to call our very own town square. People lost interest in reading the news, and I had no physical example of what journalism was –– only that I stopped seeing a Plain Dealer at the end of my driveway on Sunday mornings.

What happened to The Plain Dealer happened all over the country. Local news outlets were being bought out and gutted by corporate hedge funds, papers had to lay off their staff, drop hundreds of beats and abandon coverage in areas that relied on it.

Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post. But before she was at The Post, she was the top editor at The Buffalo News for 13 years –– another local journalism outlet that had to make massive layoffs and saw its readership and coverage decline.

In her book, “Ghosting the News” Sullivan wrote about the local news crisis –– and the dissipation of local outlets.

She discovered that since 2004, more than 2,000 American newspapers have closed their doors. From 2004-2015 the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers.

In the news industry, there are the haves and have nots. There are nationally read papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times which substantially have been able to maintain readership and print a physical paper.

And then there are the local outlets –– the outlets that are equipped with people who want to cover small towns and everyday people but aren’t given the money and resources to –– who are left with the decision to merge, adapt, or die.

Local news is vital for small communities to remain connected –– not only with what is happening in their city, but who is living there.

Fans from all over the state of Ohio decreased at my school’s football games –– because there was no one there to cover our team or our top marching band program on a regular basis. People were shocked to hear we had a student who received a near full ride to Harvard, because there wasn’t a reporter who covered local high school scholarship recipients anymore.

Residents played guessing games with one another because they didn’t know what brand-new business was being built in front of the police station.

Without a local news outlet, people became uninformed and distant with one another.

Devoid of a town square that keeps one in touch with the world and its possibilities, people might go on unaware of what is even out there for them to do or see. The loss of local journalism led people astray, people like me who spent an entire year studying to be a doctor, when I could have known earlier, I wanted to be a writer.


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