Newspapers Essential To Community

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Newspapers Essential To Community
 

 

by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

 

We are one of more than 200 newspapers in Minnesota to print a blank front page this week to illustrate to our communities what they face should their local newspaper disappear.

This is the only blank front page we have printed in 131 years.

Today, it is estimated there are 600 fewer newspapers in America than there were in 2004. In 1990, there were nearly 57,000 people working in daily newspaper newsrooms. Now that number is closer to 32,000. No one seems to know exactly how many community weekly newspapers have closed their doors or how many rural journalists have been laid off, but communities throughout rural America are gradually becoming news deserts.

Big cities are to some degree media rich. They have radio stations, web sites, television stations and newspapers. But rural, small towns have one source of news – their community newspaper.

At the founding of our nation the architects of our democracy Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew that for representative government not to become a farce an informed electorate was imperative. To help ensure newspapers were available to citizens, government advertising provided some revenue and mailing of newspapers was virtually free.

In the 1830s and 1840s business advertising began to be an ever-larger source of revenue for newspapers, helping them grow and become stronger in the coverage provided their communities. But then came the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s with its deep disruption of how news and advertising were disseminated.

Today, Google and Facebook, along with web sites that specialize in marketing niches such as autos or farm implements, are stripping newspapers of their advertising revenue. We’ve all seen the consequences –newspapers that are much thinner with much smaller staffs. At the same time, people have stopped subscribing to newspapers turning to the internet for free “news.”

Some newspapers have tried to invest heavily in digital advertising on their web sites, but digital pennies do not come close to replacing the print dollars being lost. And this scenario is only getting worse as Google and Facebook consume all the online advertising dollars.

A King of the Hill world

What we know about this internet age is that it is one, global, King of the Hill competition. Google and Facebook don’t just dominate in the big cities, they dominate in small communities around the world.

“Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next, estimates that Facebook and Google accounted for about 99 percent of all advertising growth in the third quarter of 2016—54 percent of the pie for Google, 45 percent of it for Facebook, 1 percent for everybody else,” Adrienne LaFrance reports in The Atlantic magazine.

“Facebook and Google are practically drowning in ad revenue—together they command a huge portion of global digital-ad dollars—and that’s the root of the problem for every other business trying to clamor for a piece of it,” she writes.

But as Google and Facebook suck the life out of newspapers, they contribute nothing back to society to replace the lost journalism.

While the internet has created significant problems for newspaper advertising and subscription revenues, there is another significant challenge those of us in rural America face – declining population. Many western Minnesota counties have lost one-third of their population since the peak in the 1950s with those counties now having a lower population than they did in 1900. Rural America is being unsettled.

As already small towns have gotten smaller, they have lost their grocery stores, auto dealerships, and their newspapers. People now have to drive 30 miles or more to get the food for their table and the car that takes them to get that food. They know far less about their local governments and their neighbors without their local newspaper.

In some cases the local newspaper has merged with a bigger nearby newspaper. When this happens, it takes an extraordinary dedication from ownership to keep that small neighboring community well covered; often it doesn’t happen.

It isn’t just the rural, small town communities that have lost their newspapers, so have many suburban communities. They were purchased by big corporate neighbors, and then shut down as soon as revenues didn’t pay the return investors wanted.

Communities without newspapers

What we have learned from communities that have lost their newspapers is that fewer people vote. Citizens know less about who is running for office and what direction those in office are taking their community. They don’t know the details of why the county is bonding and raising taxes by $10 million over the next five years. They don’t know why the school district has had to cut course offerings in foreign languages, music and art. They don’t know about the challenges that face their local hospital. They don’t know why one entrepreneur was given a $100,000 economic development loan, but another business was denied help.

When a reporter isn’t sitting in on the meetings of public bodies it is easy for them to pass big salary increases for city staff and for themselves – it has happened in several communities around the country already. When a reporter doesn’t attend a meeting, a developer can buy a city park for an apartment complex project without citizens knowing about it – it happened in a west coast community that had lost its newspaper.

Without our newspaper we don’t have the stories that draw us together as a community with a common 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.

Looking at what the loss of reporting meant for communities a 2011 Federal Communications Commission report found that,  “A shortage of reporting manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little.”

 “Throughout the history of this nation, newspapers have provided the bulk of the civically important functions that democracy requires….” through reporting on their local governments, the FCC report says. TV, radio, and the internet also report, but much of what they report is taken from newspapers.

The vast majority of government business acted on at meetings of the county board, city council, school board and hospital governing board takes place without a single member of the general public present. Those in the room include elected or appointed officials, staff, and a newspaper reporter – no one else.

A community loses its identity when it doesn’t see or hear news about itself, Ruben Abrica, a longtime East Palo Alto resident who is vice mayor told The Washington Post for a story titled: “What happens to local news when there is no local media to cover it?”
 

“It hurts our overall well-being,” he says. “It’s incomprehensible that people don’t know such basic things.” He was talking about not knowing about who was running for the city council, what the election results were, and what the council was doing.
 

“In very real ways, the dramatic newspaper-industry cutbacks appear to have caused genuine harm to American citizens and local communities,” the FCC report said.

What are the alternatives to newspapers?

Taxpayer-funded government information offices giving you a story that makes it look good, promotes its point of view, and covers up corruption and abuse of power represents one possible future.

Political campaigns and special interest will provide their well-financed, hyper-slanted views of the world.

Friends and family will share Facebook posts of “news” gathered from the web sites that provide them information slanted to reflect their political and social leanings.

“Fake news” and “fake videos” will have greater sway.  There is an old saying, “It ain’t what people know, it’s that they know so much that ain’t so.” Without a trusted news source we are going to have a much more difficult time sorting truth from lie.

What we also know is the trivial and sensational will get 99 percent of the coverage. The news that is the sustenance of an informed electorate, the stories about the actions of elected officials, the policies they enact and the taxes they levy, will not be covered.

Holding power accountable

Newspapers have influence in their communities for four primary reasons – the deep reach they have among citizens, the authority of their voice as a trusted source of news, their financial ability to challenge power and because we show up. Elected leaders know that a story printed in the newspaper will circulate throughout the entire community. They know that we will be at every meeting writing stories about what they discuss.

On Facebook, your circle of friends may get fired up about some action the city council or school district takes, but it isn’t long before the daily grind of life distracts them and the issue fades with no one held accountable. The newspaper is always on duty; we follow up.

Government support fading

The two original sources of government help for newspapers are greatly diminished and under attack. Postal rates have increased significantly for newspapers and are a major cost of operating today. Public notice advertising is under attack by organizations representing schools, cities, counties and other public bodies that want to post the notices to their web sites rather than support their community newspapers.

Published public notice is good policy for more reasons than just supporting local newspapers, however. It is also an issue of government transparency and openness. If notices of zoning changes, variance approvals, elections, advertisements for bids, public hearings on feedlots, ordinance changes and other government activities are only published on government web sites they will disappear from public view. Published notice also creates a dated permanent record in print that can’t be altered.

It is estimated that if public notices were taken away from newspapers that at least 10 percent of them would fold; others would have to cut staff.

Newspapers are a public good

We need to realize that newspapers are a public good, much like our educational system, our roads and bridges, our water systems, and our national defense.

With the internet taking away advertising that supports journalism, with the public turning to free entertainment and news on the internet, and dropping their newspaper subscriptions, the responsibility to support how our citizens are informed will eventually go back to its roots – where society recognized the essential need to sustain journalism that educates the electorate. Just how that will be done is a subject of considerable debate, but one we must have.
 

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