Joyce Terhaar: Communities lose when newspapers die or slide into decline
It is a story of corruption that will stay secret, politicians who will need fewer votes to win, communicable diseases that will spread faster as 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 trust journalists or not, the financial challenges slaying local newspapers will affect your community, your wallet, your quality of life.
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.
Even more prevalent than closures are those 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.
When they walked out of the newsroom, those journalists took with them their connections to the community and their knowledge of issues and people.
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 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.
• It might hurt your health: Scientists with the U.S 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.
• 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.
Without local newspapers, who reveals injustices like the 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? These are 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.
Bold intervention is what we need.
Joyce Terhaar is a board member with the American Society of News Editors and the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar. The column is written in recognition of Sunshine Week, held annually to highlight journalism’s role in fighting for government transparency.