By Rex Rhoades
A clear stream runs through a mountain village, according to an old fable, and the villagers pay an old man a stipend to care for it.
Each day the old man takes a few tools and hikes into the mountains where he clears leaves, branches and logs from the stream to keep it flowing smoothly.
One day, the village fathers question the caretaker’s value, and decide to stop paying him.
And, you know, nothing happens. The stream keeps running, clean and free. At least at first.
As the years go by, the villagers begin to realize there is less water, and that it doesn’t taste as fresh and clean.
Finally, the water stops running, and the village fathers begin tracing the stream’s path, which is difficult, because it is so overgrown, full of leaves, silt, sand, rocks and fallen trees.
Finally, they get to the source and discover that the blocked stream now takes a completely different path and their water source is lost.
I was reminded of that story recently when I came across a 2009 Pew Center study that asked two questions, “If your local newspaper closed, how much would it hurt civic life?” and “How much would you miss it?”
Only 40 percent of respondents said having no newspaper would hurt civic life; 30 percent said they would miss it.
That’s painful to hear for a guy who has spent his entire life working in this business.
But I was heartened last week when a friend forwarded an article from Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Magazine.
Tom Fiedler, dean of the Boston University College of Communication, traveled to Holyoke, Mass., where the local newspaper closed 20 years ago.
The loss, he found, is still felt today in a town that resembles Lewiston in more ways than one.
“In Holyoke babies have been born, raised and sent off to college or war or other adult responsibilities without ever seeing their names in a (Transcript-Telegram) article taped to a refrigerator,” Fiedler wrote.
“Thousands of local deaths weren’t recorded in obituary pages. Congressmen, mayors, and city councilors have been elected, served, and retired without knowing a hometown daily’s beat reporter.
“In short, all the fundamentals of civic life have continued as before, but, like ghosts, they’ve left no trace of their passage.”
That’s sad, but so what? Life goes on, right?
But Fiedler raised other issues: Who holds politicians accountable? How does the public find the best candidates for office? Who puts a spotlight on corrupt or incompetent public officials?
People in Holyoke told him that no longer happens.
Says Fiedler: The absence or weakening of a local press enables those who are already in power to essentially make their own news.
“Those in the power structure can tell citizens what they want to tell them, in the way they want to tell them — that’s, of course, if they tell them anything at all.”
And nothing at all is probably what Norway, Maine, residents would have learned after a boardinghouse fire if not for the local weekly newspaper, the Advertiser-Democrat, which is operated by the same company as the Sun Journal.
Tenants told the newspaper there were no working smoke alarms and that exits were blocked or locked.
Editor Anne Sheehan and reporter Matt Hongoltz-Hetling set out to see if that was typical of local public housing.
For three months they knocked on doors and talked to tenants of other apartment buildings, and they wrote a series of stories.
What they found was “appalling,” Sheehan told me Friday.
While doing the footwork, she spent three weeks reading inspection reports and building codes.
Then she and Hongoltz-Hetling started grilling the Maine State Housing Authority and the company hired to manage the properties about the problems.
MSHA eventually launched an investigation and found 96 violations in 10 housing units.
Visiting the scene last week, MSHA Director Dale McCormick said, “It’s a terrible situation having people living in Section 8 and not being safe. What went wrong?”
I don’t know what went wrong, but I do know what went right: A little newspaper stood up and did its job. And well.
There are dozens of newspapers like that across Maine, and they employ, according to a recent study, more than 1,700 people. From tiny one-man operations to major dailies that employ hundreds.
Over the past three weeks, however, nearly 90 of those people have lost their jobs at newspapers north and south of here.
As a nation, we have lost more than 13,000 newsroom jobs in the past four years, while very few of those jobs have been re-gained in new media ventures.
They are just gone, and with them coverage of towns and issues large and small.
That means we are slowly losing not only the watchdogs of government, but the flow of information necessary to make decisions as well-informed citizens.
I’m not sure how to solve that problem, other than to urge you to keep buying and reading your local newspaper. Or buy an ad.
All I can do is raise a flag of warning.
We don’t want to wake up some day and find the stream is dry, or that the government controls the tap.