Local Commentary

Editorial: Newspapers & Democracy

It’s becoming almost a monthly theme in the columns of the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, the demise of local newspapers and the consequences. On July 8, she wrote under the headline, “A City Losing Its Eyes, Ears and Voice,” about the demise of the lone daily newspaper in perhaps the largest U.S. city now lacking one, Youngstown, Ohio. A 150-year-old daily, The Vindicator, she reported, suddenly announced to the city’s immediate metropolitan area’s 500,000 residents that it will cease publication as of the end of August, next week.

Now comes her latest, in the Post’s August 19 edition, about the imminent merger of two major newspaper giants, the Tysons Corner-headquartered Gannett chain and the New York-based GateHouse Media, a projected $1.4 billion deal that portends only bad things for the local newspapers all across America they collectively own, and the general public that relies on them.

As Sullivan writes in this week’s column, entitled, “The News Gets Worse for Local Journalism,” the real loser is democracy itself. The demise of local newspapers represents “a crisis that threatens American democracy.” She adds, “Local newspapers, despite all their flaws and limitations, have been a trusted, and necessary, source of information for citizens across the country.”

She is right when she adds, “When local news withers, bad things happen, studies show. People vote less, and they vote in a more politically polarized way. Political corruption has more opportunity to flourish, unnoticed by a local watchdog, and municipal costs may rise.”

The nation has lost over 2,000 local papers in the last 15 years, and many others have been hollowed out when taken over by New York hedge funds (as in the case of the Denver Post) or others, like Gannett and GateHouse Media, that are more beholden to their shareholders than readers. The latest merger, if it goes through, promises deep cost cuts that will come as a result of it. Most likely to go, as Sullivan notes, are “the people who make a local newspaper worth reading.”

Ironically, in Falls Church, which continues to enjoy a quality local newspaper carrier-delivered free to every household every week, when the City government ignores this amenity, it shows in feeble public responses to its initiatives. Recently, in this city of 15,000, less than 100 responded to a major survey the City government circulated solely online, even though as much effort went to that effort as would have had the questionnaire been placed in the paper. Moreover, basing city policy on the responses of less than 100 citizens made the whole enterprise almost counterproductive, since the results were certain to be skewed in favor of the existing limited pool of citizen activists who are already the most opinionated.

It shows that when it comes to engaging the public, online tools will never match what tactile, well-distributed newspapers can. Their (our) survival is a matter of paramount importance.