These days, we must bear witness. There is a fire burning across the land. There is a blaze, largely out of sight, growing out of control.
This fire is starting to destroy the fabric of our democracy. In effect, it has already consumed hundreds of town squares, buckling the timbers that support civic engagement, public accountability and our sense of living in a shared community.
Worse, it is happening during a global pandemic, when we can ill-afford to be blinded to the risks of this emergency.
This crisis of democracy is what Margaret Sullivan, media columnist of the Washington Post, calls (and titles her recent book) “Ghosting the News”. It’s what happens when a perfect storm of economic collapse, digital revolution and some combination of apathy, greed and power left unchecked catches wind.
It’s all about the news that matters closest to home.
Thousands of U.S. newspapers have folded
In the last decade or so, more than 2,000 daily and weekly newspapers in this country have folded. “These days,” Sullivan writes, “there are hundreds of counties in America with no newspaper or meaningful news outlet at all, creating ‘news deserts,’ as they’ve come to be known.”
In the cities and towns across America that are lucky enough to claim a viable newspaper, the work has not been easy. Between 2008 and 2017, newspaper companies have cut their newsroom staffs by 45 percent, with many of the deepest cutbacks being felt in the past few years.
What happens when a newspaper closes, like the ones in Youngstown, Ohio, East Palo Alto, Calif., and the other communities whose fates are chronicled in “Ghosting the News”? It’s no secret, at least not to the public officials and corporate leaders whose deeds are done in darkness.
No journalists, no government watchdogs
Public meetings take place without public scrutiny because there’s no reporter on hand to shed light on their conduct. From the legislatures to the city halls, from school boards to fire districts, agency budgets get approved and lucrative contracts are issued without accountability.
Power latches on to power and doesn’t let go.
According to a PEN America study last year: “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”
And what about investigative journalism? Sullivan quotes Sarah Cohen, who ran a data journalism team at The New York Times and now serves as Knight Chair in Data Journalism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication: “The core of investigative work is something of public importance that somebody doesn’t want you to know.” Without reporters to inform readers about news of public importance, investigative reporting often goes by the boards. Stubborn facts remain hidden.
When the Chicago Daily News went out of business decades ago, Mike Royko, the legendary columnist, wondered what might keep a good newspaper like the Daily News from succeeding.
Apathy corrodes the free press
As Sullivan tells it, Royko focused on public apathy and distraction. He contrasted the shrinking circulation of the newspaper to the skyrocketing viewership of the latest TV sitcom, noting “the big market for mental cotton candy.”
In 1978, Royko observed: “When a new dictator takes over a country, one of the first things he does is seize or close the newspapers. Apathy isn’t as heavy-handed as a dictator. But it can get the same job done.”
Today, some disengagement from the news may be due to apathy and distraction. With more than 300,000 American deaths from COVID-19 this year, some of us may feel overwhelmed, exhausted. But we must stay focused.
In a Pew study last year, most Americans – three out of every four – expressed the view that local news outlets are doing fine financially. Yet less than one in six Americans, as Sullivan notes, “actually pays for local news, which includes having a subscription, print or digital, to the local newspaper.”
Join the bucket brigade: Subscribe
So, here’s the thing. If we are lucky enough to live in a community with a local newspaper, like this one, it’s imperative that we subscribe and support it. “After all, a newspaper’s purpose isn’t only to keep public officials accountable,” as Sullivan reminds us; “it is also to be the village square for an entire metropolitan area; to help provide a common reality and touchstone, a sense of community and place.
That purpose comes to life not only on the front page, but everywhere from the business and sports sections to arts and entertainment news. A newspaper holds together our shared space in this world.
If we’re blessed to live in the desert – not a news desert, but a real one, with start-up online news organizations – we should support them, too. When we think about the future of local journalism, we should invest in the institutions that teach student journalists the highest ethical and professional standards, like ASU’s Cronkite School, and likewise support them.
To be sure, there are other reasons readership may be declining. And we must develop new and creative business models to keep local journalism alive and well.
But it’s time to join the bucket brigade, friends, and help put out the fires that are all-too-swiftly changing the landscape of democracy. We can’t wait for new trees of liberty to take root. We must act now. Subscribe. Renew. Contribute. Engage.
Keep the light of democracy shining bright.