It is time for my annual year-end message to our Seattle Times audience, all 2.1 million of you, and to the greater Washington state community.
My message is usually about The Seattle Times and the fragile state of our nation’s local free press system. This year, I want to share how I have witnessed the American dream fracture and erode during my 40 years as a newspaper publisher in Seattle and Walla Walla – and the opportunity 2021 offers to reclaim that dream and reunite our country by rebuilding its bedrock, our local free press system.
Studies confirm the most trusted source of news and information is the local newspaper. Local newspapers have historically provided important community news and built a national consensus by putting national and world news into local context. When that no longer exists, people turn to social media, fall prey to misinformation and the partisan divide deepens.
Our founders understood that power and wealth begat more power and wealth. Left unchecked, the rich and powerful will control information and limit public education. So, our founders built a self-government founded on checks and balances between and among Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and the free press. They subsidized the free press and public education, knowing that if they didn’t, both would be controlled and severally limited. As a result, our unique local free press system flourished and America became the world’s most literate country, and until recently, its most stable democracy.
Our 232-year journey toward the American dream has a significant way to go and many obstacles to overcome. America has yet to realize the perfect nation of egalitarian self-government our founders envisioned. We have had to survive and live with abhorrent issues such as Manifest Destiny, the evils of slavery, genocide on our first peoples, incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent and denying women a vote until 1920. In my baby-boom generation, we have witnessed the hollowing out of Main Street economies and good middle class jobs; the horror of the Watts riots; two immoral, debilitating wars in Vietnam and Iraq; 9/11; the accumulation of wealth dangerously concentrated at the top; the financial system collapse; the Great Recession; climate change; law enforcement brutality; COVID-19 and health care inequities exacerbated by an election which has left us a fearful and divided nation.
The fault lines between our haves and have-nots have steadily widened during the four decades observed from the publisher’s perch. In the last two decades, the negative societal impact and social disharmony has undermined our elegant system of checks and balances. The continued erosion is killing the American dream. Unfettered Wall Street consolidation of wealth and disinvestment in American jobs has gutted local Main Street retail and manufacturing across the country. Distrust and lack of confidence in our government is at an all-time high.
This deterioration has not been a partisan issue. Washington, D.C.’s political culpability is a bi-partisan affair. Both parties have condoned the consolidation of businesses and wealth. A decrease of important regulations and constraints of power endangers our economic and civic health.
The most frightening developments are the fragile state of our local free press system and the lack of transparency and public-good mandates by the big tech platforms, which monopolize digital advertising and make it impossible for newspapers and news websites to compete. The United States would still have a vibrant local free press system if not for the combination of lost local stewardship, massive disinvestment for short-term profit, monopolization of the digital advertising marketplace, and the misinformation, lies and lack of civility enabled by social media and big tech platforms.
Perhaps the last four years were the wake-up call we needed. Fault lines and inequities laid bare. Dangerous declines in civility, inclusion and justice. Our nation has lost our empathy for one another, or at least for our neighbors who don’t look the same or who come from different life experiences.
This is not the America I thought I grew up in, or the one we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. After the last four years of turmoil, disrespect and destructive partisanship, we have hit bottom.
Can we learn from our past, or is this the final chapter before the darkness of a lost democracy? Can we renew the American dream and restore opportunity, hope and civility? Can we constructively address education inequity, health care inequity, systemic racism, income inequality, law enforcement reform, social justice reform, global warming, housing and employment discrimination? These are the building blocks of a strong, inclusive country where hope and opportunity can flourish.
I believe we can, but it won’t be easy. It requires five essential steps:
- Restore civil bipartisanship in the White House and Congress
- Move forward together on the vital issues above, building community trust
- Restore and rejuvenate our nation’s local free press system
- Reform the internet monopolies and transform the internet and social media into instruments of public good
- Return manufacturing to the United States
The most important first step is to stop the demise of our local free press system and rebuild it in the hundreds of communities that are now news deserts or suffer with ghost newspapers. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Government without local newspapers is fast spreading across the country and becoming the greatest threat to our self-government future.
Washington state is fortunate to have a congressional delegation that has shown excellent bi-partisan cooperation on state issues like trade. This bipartisanship includes protecting and rejuvenating our local free press system. Our delegation is among the most free-press-savvy in the country and the most active in pursuing public policy to help preserve our free press and the integrity of an informed and civilly engaged citizenry.
Last year, The Seattle Times started a Save the Free Press Initiative, bringing together an eclectic mix of publishers, free press activists, media writers, academics, antitrust and FCC/broadband experts and politicos in support of the common cause of saving our local free press system. After two robust meetings in Seattle and D.C., COVID-19 hit and face-to-face meetings ended, but the work continues.
The Save the Free Press initiative has:
- Hired a Seattle Times free press reporter and opinion columnist
- Added space on our opinion page for Save the Free Press columns on Wednesdays and Sundays
- Created a Save the Free Press newsletter
- Created a Save the Free Press website, which will launch soon
- Actively collaborated with other newspapers and associations on legislation and reform
Please join us in this mission if you haven’t already. Make your voice heard in Congress. Find and contact your legislators. Follow our free press coverage and subscribe to The Seattle Times Free Press newsletter.
The Seattle Times is a 124-year-old local stewardship committed to independent journalism and public service. We are proud to have become a national model for innovation and public service. We could only do this with the phenomenal support of our community – you.
Frank, William and John Blethen
Fourth-generation Blethen family stewards