On Being Disconnected and No Longer Having a Hometown Newspaper

By Jack Limpert

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Frederick Ugast was chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court but couldn’t get a timely obit in the Washington Post.

Last Saturday my wife Jean and her brother Wayne scattered the ashes of their sister Samantha in the Chesapeake Bay. All three had moved to Washington, D.C., after college, leaving behind the small town of Rockville, Connecticut, where their father ran the downtown pharmacy and was a director of the local bank. In Washington, Sam was a self-employed accountant.

Sam and Jean, both born in the 1940s, were computer savvy at work but neither had embraced Facebook or made other social media connections. So when Sam died, she was not important enough for an obit in our local paper, the Washington Post, and there was no way to digitally celebrate her life except with some emails.

She was geographically disconnected, as many of us in Washington are, from her hometown, and digitally disconnected, as many older people are, from those she knew in Washington. Thus the celebration of her life—renting a boat, heading out into Chesapeake Bay, reading a poem she wrote about “Going Home,” and scattering her ashes—was a small family affair not noticed by more than 15 people.

That relative anonymity in a big city is why Warren Buffett decided it makes sense to own newspapers in smaller cities–Buffalo, Omaha, Tulsa, Richmond—but not in cities like Washington, Chicago, or LA. Here’s his thinking about newspapers:

“Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town—whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football—there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job. A reader’s eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end. Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”

I think he’d include the obituaries of local residents in his list of the special informational needs of a city.

Last Saturday I also got some additional insight into how the Washington Post now views local news. On the same day we scattered Sam’s ashes, the Post ran an obituary of Frederick Ugast, who had been chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court. It was a nice obit but it ran on May 14 and Judge Ugast had died five weeks earlier on April 6.

About 10 days after Judge Ugast’s passing, I got an email from his son-in-law, whom I know. He asked if I, as a journalist, could be of any help in getting the Post to take notice of Judge Ugast’s death. He said the DC Superior Court had closed the day of Judge Ugast’s service and some 80 judges in their black robes and many of the city’s leaders had been at the church.

What I wanted to tell him, but didn’t, was that the Washington Post was now much more an international digital newspaper and not so much a local newspaper. During the five weeks after Judge Ugast’s death, the Post had run many timely, well-written obits on national and international figures but few on local Washington residents.

Why a man such as Judge Ugast was no longer newsworthy to the Washington Post is probably why Warren Buffett sold his Washington Post Company stock and bought local newspapers where readers still want their paper to tell them what’s going on where they live.

I’ve been reading the Washington Post for 50 years and in many ways it’s a great newspaper. But like the Ugast family and lots of other Washingtonians, I miss having a hometown paper.

Comments

  1. Ron Cohen says

    Spot on, Jack. Since Bezos and Baron took over, the Post is enormously better. But I’ve stopped counting the number of times over the years the Post has buried a great local story back in the (dating myself here) truss ads.

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