Communities Fragmented, Uninformed Without Print
This column is based on the speech given on acceptance of the Eugene Cervi Award at the annual meeting of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Reno, NV.
There is no doubt that if print journalism disappears, so will a citizen’s focus on and knowledge of local civic news. Left to self-motivation to seek out news on the internet many will put it aside for later never to return to it.
Their news consumption will become infrequent, scattered to those times when they may be directly affected by the action of a council, county board, zoning committee, or school district. But then putting it aside won’t matter because it won’t exist – no one will be left covering local news.
In America, 76% of the communities are under 5,000 population – more than 14,600. These communities most likely cannot sustain a news operation based on digital revenue alone. We don’t have the views or advertising to generate anywhere near the income needed.
Despite the loss of nearly 2,500 newspapers in America, despite the loss of tens of thousands of reporters, and despite the inability of many quality internet news sites to make a profit leading them to cut staff or close, we still hear and read the overly optimistic promises of a rich journalistic internet world.
The lies are exposed in the reality of steadily declining coverage of public bodies and life in our communities.
We’ve been told that it can be folly to “romanticize print as somehow superior to digital-only” news. We subscribe more to a famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
For two decades, we’ve been promised a revolution of civic participation built on the broad, deep knowledge citizens will gain from online reporting. That it will be a participatory process where we educate one another. The reality of the past two decades has exposed the faults in this thinking.
What we have experienced is an internet world that has fractured society into warring social and political groups no longer willing agree to disagree, but viciously attacking one another. Death threats, shunning, misinformation, and ridicule are more common than harmony, compromise, and enlightenment.
Lies gain power, and the truth is harder to find. With the coming explosion of artificial intelligence software that allows anyone to craft eye-catching and reasonably sounding internet stories and videos that are entirely false or misleading, our ability to sort truth from lie will become increasingly challenging.
Print’s loss matters; the impact of its absence visible. Rather than a representative democracy strengthened by more knowledge on the internet, we find wherever a newspaper has disappeared the opposite is happening. Where a newspaper closes fewer people vote, fewer people run for office, more incumbents are re-elected, people become more rigid in their voting, sticking to one party or the other, and malfeasance in office increases.
It is visible in the empty reporter desks in newsrooms where the print product has declined as newspapers transition to digital only. What isn’t visible, at first, is the impact of the lost reporting.
Five underlying qualities of journalism give community newspapers equal standing with the government, business, and social powers that make up a community.
Survey after survey shows that the local community newspaper is the most trusted news source. We are trusted because people know us and feel they can give us direct feedback if they think we are unfair or slanted in the news we write.
Our financial strength, now significantly weakened, gave us the resources to challenge power when it would frustrate the public’s right to know. Individuals lack the interest and finances to challenge government officials and attorneys.
We show up – day after day, month after month, year after year. The public officials know that we will write stories about their actions or inaction at every meeting. We will follow up, reminding citizens of past successes and misdeeds.
Our knowledge of the laws that govern public officials, such as the Minnesota Open Meeting law, ensures transparency and accountability. Citizens lack this knowledge allowing them to be deceived in their efforts to attend meetings or gather public information.
But perhaps our most powerful attribute today is our physical presence.
Newspapers have a deep reach among citizens in their communities. Elected leaders know that a story printed in the newspaper will circulate throughout the towns and rural areas. It is found on the store counter, around the house, in the library, and in the café every day of the week – its headlines, advertising, and photos catch your eye.
Headlines in print reach out to everyone who passes by. People who don’t subscribe still see what is happening in their community at no charge. Without the print newspaper, many would never see those headlines or stories.
Nothing replaces the community newspaper’s ability to hold those in power accountable. But as our financial strength, staff with knowledge of laws protecting citizen rights, persistent coverage, and physical presence erode, American representative democracy is weakened.
As they have lost print subscribers and advertising dollars, some newspapers increasingly focus on their digital products. They put up paywalls and, in the process, exclude most of their local residents from the news of their community.
If the news that binds us together in common purpose is gone, if the stories we share about our fellow citizens disappear, our sense of community weakens. When we don’t feel shared responsibility, the vital work that improves our schools, healthcare, public safety, recreational facilities, and cultural experiences fades. These aren’t exaggerations; they are realities based on what happens in communities that lost their newspaper.
At 95% of the public meetings we cover, we are the only person in the room who isn’t an elected official or staff. Though there is an online link to the meeting, no one tunes in. Without a community journalist in the room, the stories of your local government won’t be told.
A newspaper’s physical presence is a constant reminder that there is news you should be paying attention to in your community.
When you sit down with a print newspaper, you are more focused than you are online, where you suddenly find yourself on social media, shopping, or skimming sites for entertainment.
Print is patient. It is present. It is a physical reminder of community. It is community pride and spirit. Online, it loses those unique qualities that unite us with a common identity. Print is local.
Newspapers are a public good that deserves public support. Urge your members of Congress and the Minnesota Legislature to support legislation that helps finance their future.