There’s nothing sexy or glamorous about covering news and government at the local level. But when newspapers dedicated to reporting on local issues and politicians shut down, as has happened at a more frequent pace over the last few years, malfeasance and wrongdoing can go uncovered.
In the year and a half since the Gazette newspapers of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties closed, a lot of big stories have been missed or underplayed, according to community-watchers and former Gazette journalists.
“From my perspective, the local politicians have seriously taken advantage of the loss of the Gazette,” says Louis Wilen, a member of the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County. “They are even less accountable now than they were in the past.”
Kathy Gambrell, a former Gazette reporter who now owns a business in Bethesda, said that, in the absence of the paper’s coverage, “so much is not hitting the residents’ doorstep because there is no concerted effort to cover it.”
Post Community Media, a company affiliated with the Washington Post, made the decision to close down the Gazette newspapers and lay off 69 employees. The move was said to be a financial one. For years now, local advertising has been trending down for newspapers across the country, and the free Gazette newspapers relied on it.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett says the Gazette was “one of the few consistent local media outlets” that regularly covered the county, and that his constituents are now less informed without it. The impact of the closures, he said, has been “severe.”
“I think it hurts us as a community when we … have people who are as not as informed as they otherwise should be about the nuts and bolts of important issues,” Leggett says.
Gambrell cites several Montgomery County stories that she said would “absolutely” have been covered thoroughly by Gazette reporters, including lavish spending by the president of Montgomery College (something NBCWashington uncovered) and an eyebrow-raising Facebook post by a member of the County Council that seemed to suggest substance abuse as an election coping mechanism.
“For the most part, the goings-on in Prince George’s County go kind of uncovered,” says Jeffrey Lyles, who served as managing editor of the Gazette newspapers in the county and now works as a tech writer. He was particularly dismayed by the lack of coverage given to the county’s 2016 primary elections. “There are definitely races that people didn’t know who were the candidates were,” he said.
Journalism jobs are disappearing across the country, and Andrew Schotz, who served as managing editor of the Silver Spring edition of the Gazette, guesses that more ex-Gazette journalists left the business than found new jobs. He was able to find a new position with the Frederick News-Post, but said it took an uncomfortable three months to do so.
He says the Gazette’s staff vowed to keep in touch after the paper’s last editions were printed in June 2015, but that hasn’t really happened.
Lyles described the Gazette as a valuable “springboard” and training ground for local young journalists. With the papers gone, “in this area, it’s going to be really hard,” he says. “There’s just not a lot of opportunities out there for them.”
Leggett says he has encouraged would-be media entrepreneurs to consider starting new publications, though he cautioned that they won’t immediately be able to replace the institutional knowledge of the Gazette‘s staff. “Hopefully some of these [new outlets] will step up to this task and fill that void, but that’s going to take some time,” he says.
Len Lazarick, editor and publisher of the nonprofit, digital-only Maryland Reporter, said in a piece last year lamenting the impact of the Gazette‘s disappearance that he was exploring the possibility of setting up a Montgomery County-focused outlet. Since then, Lazarick says, he’s decided against it: “I realized I did not have the time or energy to assemble the resources to pull it off.”
The challenge for a New Gazette would be to figure out a way to actually make money at a local level. Rockville View, a new publication that sprouted up as a response to the Gazette‘s demise, offers subscriptions for $20 per year.
Bethesda Magazine publishes the Bethesda Beat blog, which Schotz praises for its coverage of Montgomery County. But nothing, he says, is really a Gazette replacement: “I don’t think anything else has emerged, and I don’t know that there’s anything on the horizon that will help.”