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Volume 4, Issue 81: No Show
"Xeroxing does not count towards a drama internship."
Hey, the book’s out. If you haven’t bought it yet, you should. If you have, you should write a (hopefully positive!) review of it on Goodreads or Amazon or both. I hope those of you who have a copy are enjoying it. Also, all bookplates have been mailed out. If you don’t have yours by next week, please email me and let me know.
Also, I’m starting the next one—already!—in the coming weeks, so I only have a few more of these please-buy-the-book entreaties left for you atop the newsletter. I really do think you should buy the book, though. If you like these newsletters, you will like the book.
The winner of this year’s The Will Leitch Newsletter men’s basketball pool was “SBURNS147.” That winning entry, which as you will remember comes with the reward of an assigned newsletter topic, was from a man named Steve, from Brooklyn. (You may remember that the winner of the women’s bracket challenge was an 11-year-old girl named Margot, who asked me to write about llamas for her. I happily obliged.)
Here is Steve from Brooklyn’s request:
I work in local news, an industry that's getting more challenging by the day (even in NYC). I know one of your first jobs was writing for your local paper. I'm curious about the impact local news/newspapers had on you and your sense of place growing up in Mattoon, and the impacts you see as the industry hollows out more and more.
So, for Steve’s victory, today we’re writing about local news/newspapers.
Roger Ebert has a great quote about his time working at the Daily Illini.
“At the Daily Illini, I learned my three favorite words in the English language,” Ebert wrote. “By. Roger. Ebert.”
The first thing I ever wrote that ended up being published was a letter to the editor of the Mattoon Journal-Gazette, in April 1992. I was 16 years old. There’s a copy of this letter in one of my parents’ old scrapbooks somewhere; they were sort of relieved that their teenage son cared enough about anything to speak up about it in a public forum. The letter was about third-party Presidential candidate Ross Perot, specifically that his candidacy seemed to be boosted less by any sort of policy proposals and more by an overarching sense of dissatisfaction with the other two candidates, President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. The letter was not explicitly lambasting Perot or his voters. It simply implored my fellow citizens of Mattoon, Illinois, to insist on concrete policies from Perot rather than rely on his folksy but maddeningly vague public persona. “The job of President is too important to just hand over to the personality of the moment,” I wrote, on my old Smith Corona Word Processing Typewriter. “We must insist that those who wish to be out leaders actually tell us what they plan to do.” I imagined the force of my words to be a thunderclap—a global event that no one could ignore. But when we all read the paper around the breakfast table the next morning, marveling that the kid with the acne and the mullet who left socks lying around the house everywhere now had his name in the same newspaper the Leitch family had read every day for decades, all I could look at was those three words: “By. Will. Leitch.” I didn’t know it yet, but I’d just developed an addiction that I’d never shake, and would never want to.
What I remember most, reading with the family that morning, was that sense that because this letter was in our local newspaper, that meant it was now everywhere. This was obviously not true: Even at its peak, the Mattoon Journal-Gazette topped out a circulation of roughly 18,000. But that 18,000 made up our entire world. To be published in the Mattoon Journal-Gazette meant that everyone we knew in our lives would see it, that my parents’ co-workers would mention it to them that day, that my teachers would all want to talk about it when I got to school, that all our neighbors would notice it and nod, that my grandma would cut it out and put it on her refrigerator. To be in the Journal-Gazette was to be seen by everyone in your life who mattered. If you weren’t reading the newspaper, you must be somewhere else—somewhere distant, somewhere far away.
Later, when I left for college, I would write regular movie reviews for the Mattoon Journal-Gazette, not because I needed the money (which was five dollars a review, generally less than I paid to see the movie in the first place), but because it was the best way to still stay in touch with the people back home—a way to let them know I was still around, and that I missed them. The University of Illinois was only 45 miles away from Mattoon, but in a pre-Internet information ecosystem, it might as well have been a different universe entirely. I wrote for the local paper to say hi to everyone. I knew they would all see it.
Today, more than 30 years later, if I wanted to say something to the entire community of Mattoon, if I were looking for something that connected everyone, a salon where everybody gathered and were able to have something resembling a collective experience … it would be impossible to find it.
The decline of local news over the last 20 years, and in particular the last 10, has been deeply dispiriting to witness. When I moved to Athens 10 years ago, the first thing I did was sign up for a daily subscription to the Athens Banner-Herald, eager to do my part to support local journalism. But it became incredibly clear, incredibly quickly, that my subscription fee was not paying the paper to invest in reporters who would cover my new community; it was being used to hand over money to hedge fund and private equity managers from out of town who loaded up the paper with debt, slashed the budget and tried to milk every last drop of revenue left from a once-proud institution that they could. This is not to say that there not talented, diligent reporters at that paper. (There still are.) It’s just that there aren’t enough of them, and the money you’re paying them for their work isn’t going to them anyway. The paper’s owner now, Gannett, has been particularly galling in its slow gutting of local newspapers; this Elaine Godfrey piece from The Atlantic details just how destructive that specific company has been to local newspapers. But Gannett is hardly alone: Lee Enterprises, the company that owns the Mattoon Journal-Gazette, has allowed that paper to fall into sad disrepair. This Instagram feed of the Journal-Gazette is telling: What was once a way to keep tabs on local news and sports has now dissolved into depressing social media prompts like “How Would $10,000 Change Your Life For the Better?” or “Have You Ever Taken a Cruise?” They have stripped away the “local” and the “news.”
Newspapers are commonly criticized for having been too slow to react to the internet’s assault on their advertising revenue, but that initial slip could have been reversed, or at least stabilized. The problem was the corporate raiders who came in and took advantage of their weakened state. That’s what caused the death spiral.
There is a macro cost to this outside of just what it strips from our local communities. Margaret Sullivan’s book Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy is explicit about this, explaining how it damages us in a way that goes beyond simply being uninformed about what is happening in your community. When there is no collective place to gather, or no single daily experience that everyone can share, we all splinter, going down our own rabbit holes, grasping for whatever truth we can find, or guess at. It’s no wonder we’re constantly fighting: There’s no single place where we can even decide what we’re supposed to be arguing about. We’re all adrift.
A key thing to note here is that it’s not the journalism that’s the problem. There is still incredible journalism being done, even at these smaller papers. But in this weakened state—not to mention the external attacks of craven opportunists attempting to hide their own misdeeds behind claims that the working press is an “enemy of the people”—it is even harder for these journalists and papers to do their work without being attacked from all sides, even from within. Just yesterday, police in Marion, Kansas raided the offices of the Marion County Record and seized their computers and cellphones because … of the complaints of a local businessperson? (The raid and seizure is so absurd it’s honestly difficult to understand what the justification could possibly be. The paper’s owner and publisher, my old University of Illinois journalism professor Eric Meyer, seems in the story to be both baffled and terrified. This is frighteningly similar to what has happened to my old Deadspin colleague Tim Burke.) These raids are outrageous and should be just as offensive, if not more so, to your average citizen and taxpayer as they are to journalists. But we’re all off in our corners, amidst the fog.
There is still great work being done, important work, at these papers, as well as by individual journalists working entrepreneurially. While the business has been imploding—again, for reasons having nothing to do with the actual work of journalism—the thirst, and desperate need, for information is more powerful than ever. As a consumer of news, there is so much great work I don’t have time to get to all of it. But that does not mean the loss of our local news—a place for us all to gather, a place where we can all hear and see each other—is not tragic, and even dangerous, in both the short term and the long term. Having a newspaper that everyone read wasn’t just a way to bond a community—it was a way to feel less alone. We are less informed now. We are less connected now. But more than anything: I think we’re more alone.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Mike Petriello and I Drafted World Series Contenders, Post-Deadline, MLB.com. The Braves were the obvious No. 1, but it got tougher after that.
The Way the USWNT Was Treated Is Another Reasons Athletes Are Retreating From Politics, New York. It’s going to be much quieter in 2024, is what I’m saying.
Your Playoff Urgency Rankings, MLB.com. A fun one to do every year. Poor Angels fans.
Eight Potential Postseason Storylines, MLB.com. Yeah: Busy couple of weeks in baseball land.
Making the Case for Each NL Wild Card Team, MLB.com. Really feel like the Cubs are getting into the playoffs, dammit.
The Thirty: One Thing to Watch Down the Stretch For Every Team, MLB.com. The Cardinals one is very sad.
Grierson & Leitch, we talked about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” “Meg 2: The Trench” and the great “Passages.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I are finding things to talk about.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, weekly shows are back, we discussed realignment this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
This is your reminder that if you write me a letter and put it in the mail, I will respond to it with a letter of my own, and send that letter right to you! It really happens! Hundreds of satisfied customers!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Bullet,” The Misfits. Every couple of years I go through a stretch in which I listen to The Misfits Collection on repeat for a week or so. I’m currently in one of those stretches. I almost went with “Where Eagles Dare” or “Who Killed Marilyn?” here. But you can’t go wrong with anything.
Also! Last week, I picked a MJ Lenderman song for this newsletter. It’s a great song, called “Rudolph,” but he also released a re-recorded version of his song “Knockin.” I knew this song, and thought it was fine (with an amusing John Daly reference), but when I saw him in concert, it was an instant, obvious highlight. They’ve thus redone it to make it sound the way it’s supposed to, and it’ll knock your socks off. If you’re on the fence about MJ Lenderman, this one will push you over it.
Anyway, good stuff.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I’m off to St. Louis next week with Bryan Leitch for our annual Busch Stadium trip. I think it might be a goodbye to Adam Wainwright? In case it is, let’s not forget the greatest Wainwright moment of them all.