May 24, 2024

Representative Democracy Dying With Newspapers

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“If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves,” President Thomas Jefferson said of the dangers of an uniformed electorate.

Eight community newspapers – the Hutchinson Leader, Litchfield Independent Review, Chaska Herald, Chanhassen Villager, Jordan Independent, the Shakopee Valley News, Prior Lake American and Savage Pacer – will cease to exist later this month.

Their demise due to corporate greed was set in motion last week by Denver-based company MediaNews Group, which is owned by the soulless hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

Litchfield’s population is 6,600, and Meeker County’s is 23,500. Hutchinson’s is 14,700, and McLeod County’s is 36,714. If these cities had locally owned newspapers, they would have a future—not an easy one, but one that would continue to serve the needs of citizens and businesses.

But they were owned by a hedge fund that stripped them of revenues and staff, and is now discarding them with no thought to the information void they will leave in these vibrant communities.

A presidential election and races for the U.S. Senate and House are on the ballot in November. State legislative seats and contests for school boards, city councils, and county boards will bring voters to polls. Who will inform the citizens of these communities about the candidates and their positions on issues?

Where is the outrage? Where is the demand for federal and state actions supporting community newspapers? We suspect that too many believe the internet will provide their news. They are disastrously wrong.

For two decades, we’ve been promised a revolution of civic participation built on the broad, deep knowledge citizens will gain from online reporting. The reality of the past two decades is the decimation of reporting staff.

We have experienced an internet world that has fractured society into warring social and political clans. Death threats, misinformation, and ridicule are more common than harmony, compromise, and enlightenment. Lies gain power, and the truth is harder to find.

One irrefutable reality is that community news has, at best, a bleak future in a digital world.

According to the U.S. Census, 76 percent of America’s towns – more than 14,600 – have a population under 5,000. Newspapers in these communities earn less than 5% of their income from digital sources. Many earn little or nothing because they are far too small, with too few subscribers and too few businesses to support them with digital pennies.

Newspapers are being lost in towns the size of Litchfield, Hutchinson, and St. Cloud, because digital revenues could not sustain them.

For too long, elected officials have promised action, but nothing happens. Close to 2,500 newspapers have been lost since 2005, and more than 200 counties no longer have a newspaper.

Citizens watch idly as politicians promise action, but then are distracted by a thousand other causes on their agenda. Lawmakers’ focus is fragmented as another one of their newspapers disappears.

We see a heightened focus on improving civic education, but its basic textbook is the community newspaper. These efforts will be meaningless if newspapers disappear.

People say TikTok, Facebook, or other social media are their news sources. Define news. Unless it has been stolen from a newspaper, people aren’t getting the news of their local school board, city council, and county commission on these sites. They aren’t getting the news of daycare shortages, lack of affordable housing, or the latest economic development efforts to address these challenges. Those stories come from local reporters. What readers are getting instead is entertainment and snippets of national news.

The eight newspapers being eliminated are institutions. The Shakopee Valley News and Chaska Herald have been published for more than 160 years; the Jordan Independent was founded 140 years ago. At their core, hometown newspapers provide living histories of their communities.

Today’s remaining community newspapers are fragile. They often fear taking tough editorial stands, knowing they will lose advertisers and subscribers.

We increasingly see news sites putting up paywalls and offering premium content for those who pay more. These operations eliminate most people from reading the news and create an elite class of informed readers. A print newspaper is available to every citizen. A copy sits in the café, the library, a waiting room, at schools, and on a city bus – no subscription needed.

The voice of independent community news is replaced by fake news sites run by political parties, special interest groups, corporations, and foreign countries, each pushing its propaganda in increasingly sophisticated ways.

When communities lose their newspapers, they become more politicized, fewer people vote, incumbents are returned more frequently, taxpayer-supported bonding costs rise, and government corruption expands.

Controversy in our communities is not typically divided along Republican and Democratic lines. Debates involve issues about their children’s education, property taxes, public safety, and quality of life.

Lose the printed newspaper, and local government officials go largely unchecked. For those in power, accountability will be a worry of the past. At 95 percent of the meetings our newspapers cover, our reporters are the only citizens in the room. Video connections are available, but no one signs in.

If we want another generation of journalists to take on the responsibility of community journalism, if we want to hire trained journalists for our newspapers, they must see a future with financial security. Too many newspapers can’t guarantee they will be around a year from now.

In a representative democracy, who ultimately has the most to lose if they are no longer informed about the actions of their public bodies? If they aren’t connected to their fellow citizens through the common bond of shared knowledge? If they lose the reporting of the challenges facing their communities? Citizens.

Citizens, in the form of their state and federal governments, must ensure the financial health of newspapers and an informed electorate before the wolves feed unchecked.

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