The Daily News of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1884 and opened its iconic art deco headquarters in 1938. By the early 1970s, the newspaper had over 45,000 subscribers and around 130 employees. Its slogan: “More than a newspaper, a community institution.”
It closed at the end of 2015, and that’s when Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University and a former staffer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, started reporting.
His new book, Death of the Daily News, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022) is a rich, fascinating, and necessary anatomy of what a town goes through in the years after its newspaper dies, how it looks at what was lost, and how some people are trying to build a new kind of local journalism.
McKeesport, Pennsylvania, population 20,000, sits on the Monongahela River. While it’s close enough to Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, population 1.3 million, to attract journalists, they generally only come when something bad happens. As in smaller, more rural areas, the only kind of professional journalistic treatment the town gets comes with parachutes. These places “are part of the coverage area, but no, the journalists are not telling a full story of what happens on the ground,” he told me.
And that is the main point of Conte’s book. A newspaper, he argues, is more than a watchdog, although it is also that. It’s a form of social capital and as fundamental to a community’s functioning as roads, parks, and pools. Newspapers also cost money, and it’s no accident, says Conte, “that news deserts are often correlated with food deserts.”
It wasn’t always so. In the years after World War II, McKeesport was an essential part of U.S. Steel’s steel-making empire. National Tube Works had opened in 1872 to make pipes out of iron and then steel, earning McKeesport the nickname “Tube City.”
In 1947, two young senators named Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy visited, because, as Conte recounts, McKeesport was “the economic and spiritual center of the Monongahela River Valley and home to one hundred thousand unionized industrial workers.”
The two future presidents appeared before a civic group to debate new labor laws. There’s still a statue of Kennedy in McKeesport, to commemorate a speech he made there to 25,000 people in October, 1962, days before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the 1940s, McKeesport was home to the corporate headquarters of G.C. Murphy, a five-and-dime store, as well as “a half dozen movie theaters, several furniture stores, and jewelry shops, and more than seven hundred retail stores, including three big department stores—Cox’s, Jaison’s, and Imel’s.” (It’s not just the local paper that modern American chain capitalism has wrecked. Ponder, for a second, the fate of all those family-owned businesses.)
Then in the 1970s came a decline. Factories closed. For a while, the newspaper stuck around. As late as 2000, the Daily News employed 10 reporters.
But while it could survive deindustrialization, it couldn’t survive the internet.
At the end of 2015, the newspaper printed the last of its 40,000 editions. “On the morning of January 1, 2016, for the first time in exactly 131 years and 6 months, residents of McKeesport woke up without a local daily newspaper of their own: The final edition of the Daily News had rolled off the presses inside the newspaper’s art deco building with a boldface headline reading, ‘Thanks, Mon Valley.’”
The best part of Conte’s research is his deep conversations with political leaders and other non-journalists about what they’d lost.
In the beginning, the politicians thought they might have gotten a lucky break. The paper hadn’t just been a booster. The year it closed, it won an award for exposing backroom gambling.
Now, there’d be no more pesky reporters bugging the pols about why they closed school or canceled the parade. “And then they realized there was nobody left to tell the stories about what they were doing,” Conte told me. “Nobody was asking the challenging questions, but nobody was reporting on the good things they were doing either.”
One of the biggest holes the newspaper left was obituaries. Without the daily record, citizens couldn’t know reliably who had died. A rumor spread that a prominent local businessman had passed, until he walked into the local grocery store.
A lot of the academic and activist work around journalism focuses on its watchdog function. Just as significantly, Conte writes, “newspapers simply let residents know what goes on around them—advising about opportunities to get involved in local cultural events and kids’ sports leagues, about employment openings and events at senior centers, about volunteer programs groups of residents form around some civic issues, and, yes, about the activities of the local bowling clubs.”
That means they’re worth paying for, but how? Here, Conte doesn’t have all the answers. Nobody does. This is a code we haven’t yet cracked. Advertising in smaller areas has dried up. People aren’t as used to paying for paywalled content online as they are in larger cities. “The McKeesport experience clearly shows that few people realized the unique power of the local newspaper to communicate ideas—both complex and simple—widely through the community,” writes Conte. “It also reveals that none of the replacement strategies on its own offers a comparative ability for placing thoughts before a critical mass of people.”
A new local newspaper called the Mon Valley Independent is slowly building a readership and has occupied the Daily News’ old building, and another startup, Tube City Online, publishes obits and community news, but they’re a long way from the coverage and profit margins of the Daily News. It can only afford one reporter in McKeesport. Local residents share important information on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. People are on their phones, sharing and writing, and trading information all the time. They post notes at the library. News finds a way.
Are these citizen gatekeepers, as Conte terms them, journalists? Not really. Journalism is a professional practice that demands skills like asking good questions and clear, declarative prose, and adherence to ethics like treating sources fairly and printing corrections when you make mistakes.
Citizen gatekeepers, Conte notes, lack the training to sort through information and decide what to publish. All Americans need to take more responsibility for what they post online, Conte argues. Community leaders understand information better “but they have incentives to share only the bits of news that help them hold on to power.”
Clearly, there is demand. Communities want information on everything from the weather to sports scores. They also want stories that only professional journalists can deliver, and are the product of curiosity, integrity, and declarative sentences. Earlier this year, I reported a story about how Moundsville, West Virginia’s Quality Bake was coping with the arrival of a Dunkn’ in town. The story garnered 5,000 clicks in 24 hours, for a story about a town of 8,000. It was something people wanted to know, and telling them by going to interview the local baker and explaining the economic context of the story was a task only a professional journalist could accomplish well.
As journalism sorts out what its future looks like, we need reporter-scholars like Conte taking a wide angle and telling us what’s actually happening. That is the job of journalism, whether it serves a community of 5,000 or 500,000. In this book Conte has done it with clarity and precision, offering perspective on death and hope for new life.
John W. Miller is a global journalist with two decades’ experience reporting from six continents and 45 countries, on print, digital, video and audio platforms. He has reported for the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine and has won awards from the National Press Foundation and the German Marshall Fund.