A lack of journalism is killing the country. We need to act like it.
When my wife ran for the Jefferson County school board in 2006, winning the endorsement of Louisville’s daily newspaper required sitting by herself and facing a panel of long-time editorial writers who quizzed her on education issues, her background, and why she thought she would make the best school board member. The result was a thoughtfully-written endorsement printed in the paper comparing her with the other candidates and describing the reasons the paper recommended voting for her.
When she sought re-election four years later she sat at with multiple candidates fielding questions from one representative of the local paper to receive the endorsement.
She decided not to run for a third term but if she had, by 2018 there wouldn’t have been an editorial board meeting at all. Instead candidates responded to an online survey. The published piece was a bulleted list of the candidates’ responses. There was no endorsement.
Louisville’s not alone among newspapers becoming less a part of our civic life. Over about the last 10 years newspaper employment fell 70%. The most secure of those jobs aren’t in the newsroom, but the accounting and operations departments as they track and manage the decline. Newspapers themselves are disappearing at a rate of two a week—2,500 since 2005.
Less news leads to higher prices, higher taxes
The Local News Initiative’s The State of Local News 2022 describes what’s come along with those trends: “…the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens. In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.”
My wife’s endorsement experience shows the consequences of of those statements and statistics. It’s harder for a politician to lie, or even to hold nutty positions, when you’re held accountable by a panel whose full-time job it is to study and think about exactly the issues you’re running on. And then to put the candidate through an interview. And then write a public message about the candidates. A clearly-explained endorsement narrative in the local paper allows the entire community to engage in a substantive discussion about things that matter. The purpose of a newspaper’s endorsement is not to sway a vote toward a particular candidate. It’s actually to show citizens a path toward healthy agreement or disagreement. When reporters, editors, and newspapers go away, all that goes away with them.
A business plan that makes us hate each other
The internet is worse than a poor replacement. Sure it allows me to read several newspapers and magazines a day with my morning coffee, and if I’m especially interested I can see the original sources of the reporting with a tap of my thumb. But on social media, except for the most globally destructive posts, there’s no consequence for making stuff up. Algorithms prioritize that what we’re most likely to see is what’s the most explosively divisive. Foreign governments set up hacking operations to undermine democracy by using those algorithms to make us hate each other and undermine faith in the institutions that hold our society together. That ugly post from your neighbor might actually have come from somewhere in Russia.
A lot of people I know don’t subscribe to our local newspaper. It’s gotten so thin, they say. There’s hardly anything in there for me, they say. Jason Robards had a response, playing editor Ben Bradlee in the last scene of All the President’s Men, telling his reporters to get to work writing about the Watergate scandal because, “Nothing’s riding on this, except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
Achieving a more civilized use of the internet seems somewhere between difficult and impossible. In her new album Taylor Swift counsels that “if it feels like a trap, you’re already in one.” Getting ourselves out of this trap won’t be easy. But there are people working toward reversing the decline in journalism.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is now being run by a nonprofit, though that experiment has mixed results so far. It’s a model being tried other places around the country. National Public Radio offers an intriguing approach to funding local journalism, with its tote-bag and coffee-mug driven membership drives. The Kentucky-based Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps “rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities through strong reporting and commentary.”
Hillary Swank to the rescue
Even prime-time TV recognizes the value of home-town newspapers with the new ABC series Alaska Daily. Hillary Swank plays a high-profile investigative reporter who ends up working for a struggling Anchorage newspaper. She’s a bit of a jerk, but brings a journalistic accountability to the local public officials and shakes up their cozy relationship with the press.
One idea that caught my eye was for a federal program to hire reporters. Washington Post opinion writer Perry Bacon Jr. argues that spending as much as $10 billion a year really wouldn’t be too high a price when you consider the magnitude and the consequences of the information crisis (the federal government spends more than that each year for hurricane and other disaster relief.) It works out to about $30 per person in the country. The program he proposes would place 200 new journalists in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts. Bacon writes, “the decline of newspapers, the deep racial tensions in many cities, the nation’s growing partisan polarization show the need to create a new and improved version of local news.”
Just imagine what it would mean for public accountability to have 87,000 more journalists scattered across every part of the country, keeping a closer eye on school boards and county commissions, and giving you a better idea of what they’re up to.
There’s plenty to argue about here even beyond the resistance to federal spending. Like, how would government funding affect the independence of the journalism?
But let’s have the debate. We’re in trouble and there’s no way out with conventional thinking. We need a radical news moonshot. There’s nothing at stake except maybe the future of the country.