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October 23, 2016
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What are we, chopped liver?

In the wake of the bombings at the Oklahoma City Federal Building or the World Trade Center, you may remember iconic photos of a firefighter cradling a baby victim or a crew raising the American flag above the twisted girders of a fallen skyscraper. You may have similar images in your mind’s eye of heroic rescues in your own communities.

You remember these incidents clearly, indelibly, for one reason: they appeared in newspapers.

Indeed, no two professions are more closely intertwined than print journalism and firefighting. It was publisher Benjamin Franklin who used his community newspaper in 1736 to call for the formation of Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company, the first volunteer fire brigade in America.

These days, volunteer firefighters in New York State are having a hard time recruiting new members, leading the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) to launch a three-year, $2.1 million statewide recruitment drive called “Is there a FIRE in you?” using a $4.2 million U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant.

FASNY’s advertising and PR agencies in New York City, Syracuse and Albany will buy thousands of TV and radio spots, more than 100 billboards, plus ads in movie theaters, online and through social media. The agencies, however, have not seen fit to place their message in the medium that has so loyally covered volunteer firefighters in New York for 275 years.

The New York Press Association, the trade association for community newspapers in New York, tried unsuccessfully by telephone and by email to discuss the ways newspapers could help with the campaign. Curiously, the public relations firm hired by FASNY has leaned on community newspaper editors for free coverage of its advertising campaign, including requests for local stories about firefighters who will be the faces of the campaign.

Community newspapers routinely publish stories about fire department recruitment, open houses, grant programs, fundraising events and awards ceremonies. Community newspapers send reporters and photographers, day or night, to cover fires and accidents. They cover the municipal meetings during which fire department budgets and new equipment spending items are discussed and decided. And, in turn, local fire departments spend local funds with community newspapers to recruit volunteers.

The beef community newspapers have with this ad campaign has nothing to do with local fire companies; the complaint is aimed squarely at FASNY. Recruiting volunteer firefighters is niche marketing at its finest, the very thing that community newspapers excel at. The people who are most likely to volunteer for their local fire department are individuals who care deeply about their communities and the people who live in those communities.

Statewide, community newspapers average over 60% penetration in the communities they serve, while the highest ranked television or radio station averages an eight to nine percent share of the viewing or listening audience.

When major advertising campaigns pay homage to youthful trends at the expense of dedicated traditional journalism, it weakens an enterprise that tells the story of volunteer fire departments with the greatest depth and consistency of any other form of media. We are ever-grateful that most businesses and organizations in our communities understand that their support of independent local journalism means photos of future acts of heroism and generosity will find a home on the pages—as well as the webpages—of their community newspapers.

[Michelle Rea is the Executive Director of the New York Press Association/New York Press Service.]