WEST NEWTON, PA — There used to 324 newspapers in the state of Pennsylvania.
Today, there are about 60 – give or take a few.
The Pennsylvania Gazette is the first one on record not just in the colony of Pennsylvania but in all of the Crown's colonies — Benjamin Franklin bought the paper with a partner in 1729 – he contributed to it as well, mostly under aliases.
Among the many firsts the plucky paper would print was the first political cartoon in America, "Join, or Die," authored by Franklin. It also printed the then-treasonous texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," and the Federalist Papers.
It was bold, it was brash, it was opinionated, and it served its readers well.
Here in West Newton, only ghosts remain of its once ‘esteemed' Times Sun; their first building along the railroad tracks only carries a faint trace of its existence on the side of the building. When the owner James Quigley Waters Jr. died in 1930 after running the paper for 34 years, local papers noted it widely — when it was forced to close that location nine years later, only a want-ad notice ran in the Pittsburgh Press for the sale of the building and its presses.
The text of the ad read: "All reasonable offers considered."
Several decades later, the Times Sun existed on Main Street as a weekly — all print ended in 2015 – and all that is left now is a shuttered office that fit nicely on Main Street; the brick was yellow, the storefront was charming — a big American flag sat in one window facing the street, a bulletin board in the other.
It is a throwback to another time.
It's a peculiar thing when a newspaper dies, especially in a small town that even admitted a hundred years ago in the pages of the Times Sun that commerce here was "slow moving" at best.
There rarely is a proper obituary for old newspapers, nothing to chronicle how they were there when the school board was caught in a corruption sting, or how the local volunteer fire department saved the elderly couple on River Road. No one to praise when reporters held the town council accountable for reckless spending or caught a local politician taking cash from a union official or how the town rallied when flood waters crested the banks of the Youghiogheny or saved people when the train derailed.
It just dies.
Along with that death comes the death of the local reporter: the man or woman who knows their community inside and out, a career that typically starts with the cops beat or the local school boards, the places where a reporter really gets to know the pulse of their hometown and their people. Who knows how the town ticks. Who knows how it ebbs and flows. Who knows where the bad guys are, both on the street and behind a podium.
Who knows fundamentally that all politics is local.
Good journalism is not glamorous. It's not sexy. It means long hours; it often means no personal life; it means wear and tear on your car; it means driving on rural roads where there are more deer than people or alleys where the state of the bodies you see outlined with chalk behind yellow tape will haunt you forever.
And when you go to a bar, you go to a bar; you don't go to a cocktail party.
It is often not done in a fancy office with a ping-pong table and an espresso machine; the coffee is typically awful, and you spend more time chasing something down in a neighborhood than on Google.
And you never stop at the top – you pay your dues, you sacrifice your personal life, and you work your way up.
As with everything in this country, automation and technology have erased more than half of the newspapers in this country that employed reporters who kept a check on power. The digital age opened up a world where everyone could have a blog, and none of them had three layers of editors to fact check you to the bone or ask you "why didn't you ask this question?" and send you back out to do just that.
That does not mean they don't do this in New York or Washington – it's just that these days they do it less in the rest of the country.
Newspapers are expensive and bleed money – the ability to make money left with the dawn of digital, and no one really figured out the secret sauce to help small towns support local news organizations like the old Times Sun.
Last Sunday, the esteemed Bob Schieffer, a newsman with decades of journalistic experience, cited a statistic on Sunday showing how journalism is thriving only in the geographical seats of power on our coasts.
"In 2004, one reporter in eight lived in New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. That number is now down to 1-in-5 who live in those three places," he reported on CBS' "Face the Nation."
That geographical realignment means that America's reputable news outlets are located near, and covered by, people who have never likely covered or understood the life of many of their consumers.
There are not only few cultural touchstones between the news deliverer and the consumer, but there are often no news stories that are critical to the consumer. It's not merely all politics that are local — all news is local. And if there is no trust in that relationship, people go elsewhere, like Facebook and Twitter.
And then, they take it one step further and only consume "their" side of the news, not because they are unintelligent but because they don't trust the larger national news organizations. When those news reporters, either in print or on air, report on church attendance or gun ownership, neither side holds the same values.
In all honesty, who in D.C. or New York goes to a "Gun Bash?" Plenty of people do in the West Newtons of the country. There is no good answer here; heck, there isn't any answer – but there is a peak into what has deepened our divide.
And there is also a reminder that all societies need local journalism – they are the ones who keep power in check.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.