It can feel a little awkward for a person like me who works for a newspaper to plead the case for saving newspapers. Working for a newspaper and a newspaper syndicate is, after all, how I pay my bills. But it is not just me and my compatriots in the press who have an interest in keeping the newspaper industry alive; it is anyone who cares about preserving a free and democratic society.
Sure, there is plenty of anger directed at the media these days, but when most of those upset people are picturing the media, it is commentators on cable news or national political reporters who are a thorn in the side to certain politicians that they have in mind. They are usually not thinking about local newspapers; and that is where a calamity looms that will harm everyone, no matter their political beliefs.
Local newspapers, from small weeklies in rural areas to metro dailies in our bigger cities, are American citizens’ primary source of information about state and local government, schools, crime, sports, the arts, neighborhoods, local businesses and just about everything else in public life. When they do their jobs right, local journalists keep politicians honest, warn about scams and con men, celebrate local heroes and give a voice to people who are mistreated or cheated or defeated by powers bigger than themselves.
That indispensable resource is rapidly going away. Since 2004, as many as 2,100 local newspapers have gone out of business. Many more have been taken over by corporate entities who don’t give a damn about good journalism or individual communities and just want to squeeze the last drop of profit out of withering newsrooms. Much of the country has become a news desert where citizens are either underserved by the remnants of once thriving news operations or are not served at all.
Small towns have been hit especially hard, but it is not just those communities that are going without news. Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. recently cited the example of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a once proud newspaper, that has now been reduced to covering a metro area of 2 million people with just four reporters.
So far, Seattle has done better than most cities, thanks to dedicated local ownership that cares more about quality journalism than cutting to the bone to pump up profits. But even The Seattle Times, in one of the richest cities in the country, cannot avoid debilitating reductions somewhere down the line if things continue as they are. There are many good ideas for changing the economic equation for newspapers. The first thing that might help a great deal, though, is for the citizens and the civic leaders of this region – and every region in America – to understand the utter necessity of preserving and resurrecting independent, local news organizations.
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, and it was no accident that the founders of this country put that guarantee first. They understood there is no possibility of a free nation without a free press.
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