Tom Northrop’s family has lived in Washington County, Pennsylvania, for more than 200 years, and it has owned and published the local newspaper, The Washington Observer-Reporter, since his great-grandfather, Jack Stewart, bought it in 1902. The paper itself was founded in 1808. So they – the family and the newspaper – have been around for a while.
Like newspapers everywhere, the Observer-Reporter is enduring hard times and is worth a fraction now of what it not long ago. Last October it went through a series of difficult lay-offs and buy-outs.
"It’s been,” said Tom, “a rough year.”
Washington County lies about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, in the old coal-and-steel country that is now better known as the Rust Belt. It was a strong union area when unions were strong, and heavily Democratic in registration, although its voters have always been fiercely conservative on social issues, from gun rights to abortion. In the last 35 years, the Democratic majority has dropped from 4-1 to 2.5-1.
I stopped there last summer when I was traveling through the industrial heartland, and Tom set up meetings for me with several Trump supporters, although he, a lifelong Republican, was not one. It was there that I first witnessed the depth of Trump’s support. In November the Observer-Reporter endorsed Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump took 64% of the vote in Washington County.
Two days later, Tom wrote his first-ever editorial under the headline, “Trump Wins.” It said, simply, “We have no words,” followed by 16 inches of blank space. It was not an altogether popular effort. “We’ve had about 100 people cancel subscriptions,” he wrote me, “which is only slightly higher than the number of cancellations when I dropped Mary Worth as a strip 20 years ago.
“Two people told me I deserve a Pulitzer,” he added, “and two people said there is a special place in hell for people like me.”
His uncle Bill, a retired co-publisher, wrote a scathing letter in which he called the editorial “a giant middle finger not only to the Trump voters but the entire electorate.” The Washington Post picked up the story.
It’s quiet again in Washington County, and I expect that some of those who cancelled will return. After all, it’s their newspaper, and it has served the county for 208 years. If it didn’t take occasional stands against the popular winds, it wouldn’t be of much value to its community – which is why America needs more Tom Northrops, more newspapers like the Observer-Reporter, and a courageous and caring community press.