A Drop of Ink
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Father of the First Amendment
Fourth President of the United States
Each year during the third week of March, the nation’s newspapers celebrate Sunshine Week. It highlights the press’s role in shining a light on government to keep it honest.
Started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week is intended to remind people of the importance of journalism. It coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison. Madison was one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, instrumental in passing the Bill of Rights, and the nation’s fourth president.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant” has been a phrase used for decades to refer to the need for the public and press to have access to what our governments do. “Democracy dies in darkness” was adopted by the Washington Post in 2017 as its official slogan as the threat to newspaper survival grew as Google and Facebook decimated the revenues streams of newspapers.
As Google and Facebook stole newspaper content, marketing it as their own, they built monopolies worth more than $2.4 trillion. Meanwhile, their obscene profits led to darkness sweeping across the country – the kind of darkness that threatens our democracy.
More than 2,200 newspapers have disappeared in America since the last 20 years. Most of those newspapers, more than 2,000, have been weeklies. Hundreds more are threatened. More than 225 counties in America are now without a newspaper, and 1,525 have only one, according to a study by the University of North Carolina found.
The price of living in darkness
In Kent, Washington, a city council sold a local park for a housing development without informing citizens the subject was on the agenda. There was no reporter at the meeting.
In Crystal City, Texas, three of the five members of the city council, as well as the city manager, were arrested for taking “tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and helping the operator of an illegal gambling operation.” They were accused of using “their official positions to enrich themselves by soliciting and accepting payments and other things of value.”
After the investigation into the finances of the City of Bell, California, seven Bell officials, including the mayor, city administrator, assistant city administrator, and four council members, were found guilty of graft and corruption. The city administrator, whose salary had increased to $800,000, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
As a result of those public officials siphoning off millions of dollars in taxpayer money, Bell saw its bond rating lowered two notches below investment grade. That meant having to borrow money at much higher interest rates – the funds coming out of the pockets of citizens and businesses.
Corruption was possible because Bell, Kent, and Crystal City lost their newspapers or saw coverage so weakened that one reporter was trying to cover dozens of meetings.
Minnesota’s legislative districts have been rearranged for the 2022 elections. Suppose the local newspaper didn’t report on the new boundaries of the districts and who was running for office. How would you know who was seeking to represent you and what that person stood for?
Without our newspaper, we don’t have the stories that draw us together as a community with a shared sense of responsibility and purpose. We become more isolated. We are less likely to volunteer for city boards and commissions. We are less likely to know about and help out with community projects. Fewer people run for office, and incumbents find it easier to get re-elected.
We know these things happen because communities that have lost their newspapers are experiencing them.
What we have learned from more than 20 years with the internet is that for America’s small community newspapers its promise has turned into devastation. Digital payments represent 0 to 5% of their income. In a digital-only income world, we don’t exist. The paltry revenue won’t sustain us.
We also know that there are few, if any, alternatives in rural America for providing citizens with local news. If there are radio stations, they often get their information from the local newspaper. No television stations cover our small communities; no internet news companies. There is only the community newspaper for reliable news coverage.
With the loss of newspapers, readers are too often left with the misinformation fed to them through Facebook, other social media, and Google searches.
“The collapse of local news has created information vacuums. These have not remained empty; rather, they’ve been filled by national news (cable, talk radio, national newspapers), global social media platforms, and, increasingly, local social media platforms,” Steve Waldman of Report for America, writes.
“As a result, the decline of local news leads to more polarization—which, in turn, increases the spread of misinformation. Local reporting plays a critical role in combating misinformation; local reporters are more trusted, in part, because they’re on the ground and can interact with residents directly.”
Good journalism, informing citizens, tying a community together through common knowledge to work toward a common good has a cost. Today the bill isn’t being paid. We fear what the future may bring when the lights journalists shine on the local government go out – too slowly to cause concern and to motivate citizens to demand action to save their newspapers.
“Robust, quality journalism, particularly at the local level, is undoubtedly critical for a functioning democracy,” Gerry Smith and Yueqo Yang of Bloomberg News write. “It supports civic engagement and provides communities with vital information on issues such as health care, public safety, and economic development. Journalism provides the tools necessary for a well-informed public and sustainable self-government. Unfortunately, journalism today is unable to meet the civic information needs of our nation’s communities.”