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Published July 28, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Where have all the newspapers gone, long time passing?

Evan Brant, a newspaper reporter, is a dying breed

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Evan Brandt is my hero.

According to the New York Times, Brandt is the last reporter standing at the Pottstown Mercury, a daily newspaper in the Philadelphia area. It is the smallest newspaper to have won two Pulitzer Prizes.

Brandt doesn’t have the most glamorous, high-profile newspaper job. He’s not a political reporter, a foreign correspondent or a columnist. You won’t see him opining on cable news.

He’s a local beat reporter, at least that is what we called his job during my newspaper career.

Beat reporters cover the local news that directly impacts you. They cover city councils, school boards, courthouses, hospitals and police stations.

I learned the importance of local journalism while covering a city council meeting in the New Franklin, MO. firehouse in the late 60s. I expected a boring meeting, but the firehouse was packed so I sat in the old fire truck and listened to hours of heated debate. The issue: Should dog owners be required to keep their pets leashed while walking them?

Nobody outside of New Franklin cared, but it deserved to be covered.

Unfortunately, newspaper reporters are a dying breed. The number of newsroom employees dropped 51 percent between 2008 and 2019, from about 71,000 to 35,000.

Who is going to inform you about proposed tax increases, road detours, new zoning regulations and, yes, dog leash proposals?
Most importantly, who is going to replace newspaper reporters and crusade against corruption? Holding public officials accountable has long been in the DNA of newspapers.

In her book “Ghosting the News,” journalist Margaret Sullivan argues that the danger of local journalism dying out has dire implications for both communities and for the fragile democracy that contains them.

She blames the threat to newspaper journalism on the loss of local and classified advertising and competition from websites that have conditioned readers to expect news for free.

No matter the cause, she believes the kind of journalism that Americans need to function is in the midst of mass extinction. She feels replacements - local radio and television and websites - are insufficient to fill the vacuum.

That’s why Evan Brandt is my hero. He views local news reporting as a calling and has confronted those seeing it only as a business.
In a cost-cutting move, the hedge fund that owns the Mercury closed the Pottstown office and consolidated operations of its Philadelphia area papers in a plant 20 miles from Pottstown.

That left Brandt the only reporter in Pottstown. Working out of his house, he scrambles to cover more than a dozen area city councils and school board meetings.

He makes a difference.

When the YMCA wanted to close its Pottstown operation, Brandt wrote about the impact it would have on a town that once was home to a Bethlehem Steel plant and Mrs. Smith’s Pies. The YMCA stayed open.

When the pandemic started, he wrote about disadvantaged students who didn’t have laptops to do school work from home. A $60,000 donation eased the problem.

Intrepid reporter that he is, Brandt learned the paper’s owners - Alden Global Capital - earned $18 million and had a 30 percent profit margin on its Philadelphia area papers in 2017.

Brandt, who has won 36 journalism awards in his 23 years at the Mercury, wondered why the hedge fund needed to cut staff.
Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst, knows the answer. “They’re extracting significant profits, and they’re not investing. When they can no longer extract a profit - or enough profit - they’ll turn out the lights.”

Brandt then learned that Heath Freeman, co-owner of the hedge fund, was expanding his $4.8 million waterfront mansion on Long Island.

Brandt wanted to ask his boss one question.

According to the Times, Brandt drove his Corolla to the mansion, carrying a notebook and wearing shorts and a “News Matters” T-shirt.

He knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman who escorted him into the foyer. She asked if he was expected. Most certainly not, he replied.

Brant saw Freeman upstairs, and for a moment the two men locked eyes: The fit multimillionaire and the rumpled $46,000-a-year newspaperman.

Brandt shouted out the question, and Freeman walked away without answering.

My hero’s question: What value do you place on local news?

It’s a question we all need to think about … before it’s too late.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)