Sunshine

SHEDDING LIGHT — This image provided by Matt Wuerker shows his editorial cartoon made for 2019’s Sunshine Week. In 2005, the American Society of Newspaper Editors launched the first national Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information that has been held every year since to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.

It is a story of corruption that will stay secret, politicians who will need fewer votes to win, even dangerous communicable diseases that will spread faster as our best scientists struggle to fight them.

The story is the slow and painful demise of local news­papers, a story whose end­ing is not yet written but which — without bold in­ter­vention and strong read­er support — could bring catastrophic rep­er­cussions.

Whether you follow the news or not, whether you trust journalists or not, the financial challenges slay­ing local newspapers will affect your community, your wallet, your quality of life. In some cities, they al­ready have.

We’ve watched local news­papers lose revenue to tech giants for the better part of the last quarter cen­tury. In recent years, the outcome has become dire, with nearly one in five — almost 1,800 news­pa­pers — closed in the last 15 years, according to Penelope Muse Ab­er­nathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Media Econ­omics at the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina.

Even more prevalent than closures are what Ab­er­nathy calls “ghosts,” news­papers that are a shell of what they were. Tens of thousands of jour­nal­ists left newsrooms in the decade ending 2017.

You can blame the in­satiable grab for profits from hedge fund ownership like Alden Global Capital and its Digital First Media. But even companies with deep commitments to their jour­nalistic mission have been forced to issue one lay­off after another, dis­man­tling newsroom staffs that once kept a check on the powerful.

When they walked out of the newsroom, those jour­nal­ists took with them their connections to the community and their know­ledge of issues and peop­le. We’ve all lived through the result: Your news­paper’s best coverage still might be very good; there’s just not nearly enough of it.

I used to think journalists in digital startups would re­place newspapers that disappeared. That isn’t hap­pen­ing enough. Ab­er­nathy identified hundreds of cities with no credible news source left. And last July, Pew Research Cen­ter re­port­ed that in the dec­ade end­ing in 2017, rough­ly 32,000 newspaper jour­nal­ist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news startups. News­papers still employed more journalists — 39,000 — than the 13,000 at dig­it­al sites.

What happens when a community loses a news­paper? Or when the newspaper no longer has enough reporters to cover the news? The Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­cations Com­mis­sion as far back as 2011 had a bleak prognosis : “More government waste, more local corruption, less ef­fective schools, and other serious community prob­lems.”

It was right:

• It costs you money: High­er wages for gov­ern­ment employees, higher def­ic­its and — perhaps a more esoteric example — higher costs for mu­ni­cipal borrowing. Last May, re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago found all three after looking at how local news­paper closures af­fect­ed public finance. ”... local news­papers hold their gov­ern­ments accountable, keep­ing municipal bor­row­ing costs low and ul­tim­ately saving local tax­payers money.”

• It might hurt your health: Scientists with the US Centers for Disease Con­trol and the World Health Organization told the health news site STAT last year they use local news­paper reports to watch for the spread of in­fec­tious dis­eases and are han­di­capped in com­mu­nities with­out newspapers. For in­stance, the CDC obtained ur­gent data about a 2016-17 mumps outbreak in north­west Arkansas only be­­cause of coverage from the Arkansas Democrat-Gaz­ette.

• Fewer people hold power: When local news­papers go out of business, sev­­e­ral recent studies show, we don’t vote as often or stay engaged with pol­itics. That means fewer people elect our politicians. Think about the last time you voted. Did you vote in every race on the ballot? Or did you skip some because you couldn’t easily find verified in­formation about the can­didates?

Without local news­pa­pers, who reveals injustices like the widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests reported by the Boston Globe in 2003? Or leads a community-wide discussion of race relations and the impact on housing, crime and education, as Ohio’s Akron Beacon Journal did in 1993? Or exposes high death rates among Las Vegas construction workers as the Las Vegas Sun did in 2009? These are just three examples of public service so exemplary they received a Pulitzer Prize.

We can’t afford to lose this kind of journalism. You can help by subscribing to at least one local news­paper. The Knight Foun­da­tion last month an­nounced a major effort to help, committing $300 mil­lion to organizations in­clu­ding those that pay for local jour­nalism, like the Am­er­ican Journalism Proj­ect, Re­port for America and the in­ves­tigative journalism non­profit ProPublica. Phil­an­thropists around the country are funding non­profit startups to help fill the void.

We should pay attention to what other countries are doing, and to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal on Friday to break up tech company dom­inance, even though government intervention rightly raises some hackles.

Late last year, the Can­a­dian government an­nounced it would spend $600 million to protect pub­lic service journalism, using tools such as tax in­cen­tives. A British inquiry into what it will take to sus­tain high quality jour­nal­ism last month rightly ques­tioned whether it’s time for government in­ter­ven­tion given the market dom­in­ance of Facebook and Google, and made rec­om­men­dations including pos­sible journalism subsidies.

What about that market dominance?

It is, after all, threatening public service journalism, an essential part of our dem­oc­racy and citizen power. In January, we saw Face­book pledge to spend $300 million in the U.S. to help local newspapers, a year after Google promised the same amount.

It’s a good start, but not nearly enough: The du­op­oly controls most on­line advertising rev­en­ue, ben­ef­its from news con­tent, yet doesn’t pay for the substantial cost of qual­ity journalism. Bold in­tervention is what we need. Will it take the British?

Terhaar is a Board member with the American Society of News Editors and the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee. Follow her at https://twitter.com/jterhaar

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