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When the hometown paper isn’t local anymore

Piqua, Ohio, U.S.A. – Aimee Hancock is a reporter. Truthfully, she always has been. Even in her youth, Hancock fostered an inquisitive mind, and interest in the news as a format for storytelling.

The box that once held copies of the Piqua Daily Call now contains editions of Miami Valley Today. (Zurie Pope/YJI)

¨When I was a kid, I loved watching Nick News with Linda Ellerbee on Nickelodeon. I think that’s what sparked my interest in journalism.¨

As a child in Ohio, she would make scrapbooks that she “created to look like magazines by cutting out pictures and words in other magazines or books.¨

Originally intending to become a photojournalist, Hancock didn´t consider news reporting until high school.

¨I took the first ever journalism class offered at Troy [Ohio] High School,¨ she said, adding that her first article was ¨a very short story about the band The Doors.¨

Despite finding the interview process uncomfortable at first, Hancock cultivated her newfound talent, joining Bowling Green University´s BG News. She hoped to one day work for a magazine. Her dream publication? Rolling Stone.  

Hancock does not work for Rolling Stone. Instead, she bounced from one local paper to another.

¨I did a lot of freelance writing for publications, including My Miami County, Columbus Underground, and Outlook Magazine.¨

Eventually, she discovered The Piqua Daily Call, and has worked there for almost two years. With a circulation of 7,000 readers, The Piqua Daily Call was among the smallest of Ohio´s many small town papers.

When Hancock first arrived, she said, The Call had three sports writers, three full time reporters, and two freelance writers, a relatively large staff for a paper of its size, but one which would shrink with every passing year.

Aimee Hancock

Although the paper was once owned by newspaper publisher Civitas Media, in 2017, Civitas was acquired by AIM Media Midwest, a subsidiary of Texas-based conglomerate AIM Media Management. AIM gained control of all 17 newspapers formerly under Civitas´s banner, including The Call.

Afterward The Call and its local competitor The Troy Daily News were merged into one, becoming Miami Valley Today, or MVT for short.

While Hancock conceded ¨from a business perspective¨ this acquisition was helpful, but ¨from an editorial standpoint, the move resulted in staffing loss, which leaves more work for the rest of us.¨

While according to Hancock everyone who left during her tenure did so of their own accord, the company decided not to fill the jobs.

¨My editor and I would gladly welcome new reporters,¨ Hancock said. ¨But according to upper management, the funds just aren’t there to do so.¨

Blythe Alspaugh interned for the Daily Call in 2016, eventually taking a job with The Sidney Daily News in Sidney, Ohio, about 13 miles north. It is also owned by AIM Media.

Today, as a full-time reporter, she works for both Sidney Daily and MVT, covering small communities as much as 40 miles apart.

She writes “anywhere from three to five stories a week” on multiple topics for the MVT, despite only being assigned to write about the city council and school board in Tipp City, Ohio, nearly an hour’s drive from Sidney.

Her heavy workload is a direct result of MVT’s staffing issues.

“The staff size is noticeably smaller than it was when I interned for the paper in 2016, when it was the Troy Daily News and the Piqua Daily Call,” Alspaugh said.

Blythe Alspaugh

The combined paper now has only two full-time reporters along with a sportswriter, a staff photographer, and some freelancers, according to Alspaugh.

“No matter how many reporters you have in a newsroom, the goal is always to write balanced, in-depth stories that inform readers,” said Alspaugh.

Yet her determination is tinged with a large dose of pragmatism.

“Four people can only do so much,” said Alspaugh. “We would love to be able to cover stories in the same quantity and capacity they were covered 10, 20, 30 years ago, but having a newsroom a fraction of the size impacts that.”

Though MVT reporters are concerned about the staffing size, little has been done to alleviate their worries. 

“I don’t think AIM Media has attempted to address the staffing issues at our paper,” Alspaugh said, citing the circumstances of her employment as evidence.

“A reporter resigned last year, and rather than allow the paper to hire a new reporter, it was decided that I would move from only working for the Sidney Daily News to splitting my time working for both the Sidney Daily News and the Miami Valley Today,” said Alspaugh.

The paper’s corporate owners “saved money that way and it was a quick fix,” she said.

The issues facing MVT can be seen in newsrooms across the United States.  As readership and ad revenue decreases – both gravitating towards social media platforms – conglomerates like AIM become essential for a small town paper’s survival.

To Hancock, this is a dangerous state of affairs.

“This is definitely a critical threat. Journalism, in ideal terms, serves as a ‘watchdog’ and is the Fourth Estate. With fewer entities controlling news agencies, there is a risk to the production of unbiased news.

The biggest problems befalling journalism in the modern age, said Hancock, are “overworked and underpaid staff, lack of funding, lack of resources.” 

The AIM corporate logo on the front page. (Zurie Pope/YJI)

AIM Media did not respond to Youth Journalism International’s multiple requests for comment.

Journalism is a difficult business, and the multitude of issues that come with it often scare newcomers.

Hancock knows this from firsthand experience.

“I have former co-workers and classmates who’ve earned a degree in journalism then worked for just a few years in the field before realizing it wasn’t for them,” she said.

Still, she’s never considered changing her vocation.

“I really feel that to work in journalism, you have to be very passionate about it overall. I cannot see myself ever doing anything else.”

Zurie Pope is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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