“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
— Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 16, 1787
The nation’s newspapers, which produce the majority of the original local content that is the oxygen of democracy, soldiered through the last week with their focus on fighting the pandemic even as a chronic fiscal infection continued to weaken them.
Readership, measured online, is hitting all-time highs. But with shuttered local businesses canceling almost all advertising, publishers in Washington and across the country have laid off journalists, axed publication days and shuttered some publications.
In an election year.
During a coast-to-coast economic freeze that may hatch a historic depression.
While we still don’t have a vaccine against further spread of the novel coronavirus.
Things are so bad for the free-press system in America that some folks in the Pacific Northwest celebrated last week when they learned the Portland Oregonian’s owner, Advance Publications, was “only” imposing furloughs and pay cuts. In Spokane, employees and their friends sighed with relief when publisher Stacey Cowles announced that he would cut no staff, instead balancing the books by canceling Saturday publication of the daily Spokesman-Review for the first time in 125 years.
The cuts in Portland and Spokane were less painful than decisions taken by Black Press, the Canadian newspaper conglomerate that owns the Everett Daily Herald and more than 40 other weekly and daily newspapers in Washington. Black Press’ local division — Sound Publishing — ceased printing nine of its community weeklies, laid off an undisclosed number of its 350 staff and furloughed others. Black’s Puget Sound region weeklies are relying on part-time staff, and the daily Peninsula Daily News canceled its Jefferson County edition, folding that content into its Clallam County paper.
Newsroom staff members had their hours cut 25% at The Skagit Valley Herald and eight other papers owned by Adams Publishing Group, a Tennessee company.
So, while the national free-press system President Thomas Jefferson cherished as the bulwark against tyranny totters, the World Health Organization warns of a global “infodemic” of misinformation about the contagion that has killed 34,000 in the U.S. in the last two months.
What could possibly go wrong?
What Jefferson said about newspapers — that he preferred newspapers without any government to governance without newspapers — doesn’t sound like a rhetorical flourish anymore. It sounds like the unthinkable has become the new America, if something isn’t done to preserve local journalism. People often forget the rest of what he wrote in that often-quoted letter: ” … but I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
In a growing number of towns, Americans will be living under local governments facing little oversight and in an information ecosystem in which Google Ad Sense and Facebook incentivize bad actors by making misinformation and disinformation profitable.
Scholars have documented that when newspapers shut down, taxpayers see increased borrowing costs for infrastructure projects, faster government spending, less competition in local elections and citizens who are less engaged with their communities.
“What you lose when they close is you lose the person covering the town council, county commissioners, the school board,” says Penelope Abernathy, the author of a series of four studies of the increasing number of U.S. “news deserts.” Those towns with no local news outlets tend to be smaller and poorer than the average American hometown, she found in her newest study, due out in few weeks.
What keeps her focused on the disappearing local newspaper is not nostalgic love for inky newsprint but for the DNA of community service that local newspapers have brought forward into the digital age. “They were the ones you depended on to show you how you shared the same problem as your neighbors,” she said in an interview last week.
There’s another reason Abernathy and her research team at the University of North Carolina Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media focus on newspapers. Even though newspapers are outnumbered three-to-one by other outlets like TV, radio and web publishers, researchers find they still produce about two-thirds of the original local content in the news ecosystem.
For Cowles, the Spokane publisher, the decision to keep all 70 of his newsroom staff as long as he can is what Jefferson embraced about citizens’ need for information.
“There’s no substitute for the local news and what’s happening, and what people are thinking,” Cowles said of the obligation his family feels to keep serving local facts to local readers. “There are a lot of interesting things about Spokane that we treasure and we love to read about. And so that’s kind of the key … reminding them what’s great and what’s worth saving, and what’s changing.”