Local newspapers keep dying, and that is very, very bad for democracy.
Academic studies confirm some of our worst fears: for example, civic engagement declines when local newspapers disappear. Municipalities that have lost their newspapers pay higher interest rates when they issue bonds. (When no one is “watching the store,” purchasers of municipal bonds worry about the competence and honesty of the local government that is issuing them, and factor in that concern when setting interest rates.)
Recently, both the New York Times and the Guardian have reported on the demise of local papers. The Guardian reported on the loss of Youngstown, Ohio’s newspaper, The Vindicator.
It was in the late 1920s that the Ku Klux Klan regularly began gathering outside the home of William F Maag Jr in Youngstown. Maag owned the Vindicator newspaper, which unlike others in this once prosperous part of Ohio, had been willing to criticize the racist Klansmen.
Men on horseback, clad in white robes and hoods, would burn crosses and flaunt rifles and shotguns, in an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work. The men of the Maag family would stand outside their home, themselves armed, refusing to be cowed, as the Vindicator continued to expose government officials who were part of the Klan.
That defiance set the tone for decades of investigative, combative reporting from the Vindicator. The daily newspaper relentlessly reported on the mafia, the government, big business and even its own advertisers.
But no more. Soon after celebrating 150 years since its first edition came news that was devastating to many in Youngstown and the wider Mahoning valley. The Vindicator was shutting down at the end of August. For good.
The closure leaves Youngstown as the largest city in the U.S. without a daily newspaper.
According to a study by the University of North Carolina, more than 2,000 US newspapers have closed since 2004, and at least 1,300 communities have completely lost news coverage in the past 15 years. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of working journalists in the U.S. declined 47% between 2008 and 2018.
The Times devoted a special Sunday section to the issue, centering its discussion on the “Dying Gasp of a Local Newspaper,” the weekly Warroad, Minnesota Pioneer.
This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897.
And what about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell?
“Is there going to be somebody to hold their feet to the fire?” asked Tim Bjerk, 51, an in-house photographer at Marvin, the big window and door manufacturer that dominates the town.
The problem is wider than reports of newspaper closures suggest, because the death of journalism isn’t always heralded by a shuttered operation. In my city–Indianapolis–the surviving newspaper (we once had three!) was pretty mediocre even in its heyday. When Gannett purchased it, it went from mediocre to worthless. In an effort to wring every possible penny of profit out of the paper (for which Gannett had wildly overpaid), the company cut costs by firing most of the people who produced the content–the reporters. Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is now nearly non-existent–the paper is now a sorry compendium of nostalgic “looking back” features, coverage of new bars and restaurants and sports, with a very occasional investigative report. (When there is an investigative report, it is revisited ad nauseam for days on end.)
People who want to know what school boards are doing can go to Chalkbeat (if they know it exists); people who need to know what the legislature is doing (and who can afford it) can subscribe to one of the for-profit services issuing statehouse newsletters. The general public, however, is left uninformed–and unaware of what they are uninformed about.
A couple of years ago, the textbook I used in my Media and Public Policy class was titled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?
Americans can still access information about Washington and the world. Information about their local and state governments is another matter entirely. The conduct of state and local government has an immediate and significant effect on citizens– think taxation, policing, education, infrastructure and its maintenance, and the myriad rules that constrain the conduct of our daily lives. Without easily available, objective reporting on the conduct of our elected and appointed officials, they are unaccountable.
At election time, voters are supposed to cast informed ballots. Without local journalism, how can we be informed?