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Watchdog Down

By Tim Hayes

It could have been a school board director, a township commissioner, or a borough council president yammering on.  Some weeks it was all three.  Regardless of the elected body, though, there I sat, notebook and printed agenda in hand, pen rapidly scratching notes as the debate wore on.

Living the life of a general assignment reporter for a local community’s newspaper.  And loving it.

I’d drive back to the newsroom after the school board or local municipality meeting, usually around 9:30 p.m. or later, read my notes again, and start banging out the story for the next day’s paper.  Big issues, like…

– Would taxes increase?  By what millage?

– Would the school district spend more this year on marching band uniforms, the football stadium, or teaching supplies?

– Which local roads would be resurfaced this summer?

– How’s that bond issue for the new sewer system going?

I know.  Sexy as hell, right?  Well it was, if you looked at it the right way.

The big shots in Washington and Harrisburg had their own dramas that usually captured the major headlines.  But most times those issues never had the same impact on local homeowners and parents of schoolkids as the decisions made by those homespun boards and councils.

Having a member of the press there to keep a record of those discussions and votes made a difference.  A subtle difference in the grand scheme of things, maybe, but a critical difference nonetheless.

Imagine if the local paper stopped covering school board, borough council, or township supervisor meetings.  Imagine if local taxpayers and residents had no idea of decisions made affecting their homes, their mortgage payments, their streets and parks and businesses, even their kids.  Imagine if those local elected officials suddenly had no outside party holding them accountable, reporting on their statements, opinions, disagreements, and votes.

No less an authority than Thomas Jefferson wisely stated, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

He knew that for a democracy to succeed, its people had to know what their elected officials were doing.  Only armed with that knowledge could the people make informed, intelligent decisions about their government – even on a small scale like your hometown borough or school district.  Perhaps most of all at that level, in fact.

Well, guess what, TJ?  I’m afraid I have some bad news about the news these days.  We are rapidly sliding downward into a nation of government without newspapers – the very situation you said would be most dangerous.

According to a story* published by the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, “Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost more than 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers…this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.”

Columnist Megan McArdle** in The Washington Post describes it as follows:

“About 15 percent of the newsroom will be laid off at BuzzFeed; 7 percent at the media division of Verizon, which owns AOL, HuffPost and Yahoo. And newspaper chain Gannett swung the ax through several of its publications last week, including the Indianapolis Star, the Tennessean and the Arizona Republic. The brutal round of layoffs was hardly the first to hit the industry…we’re watching the destruction of most of the nation’s journalistic capacity.  Fifteen years have been spent in a fruitless search for a viable business model that will support the kind of journalism the country expects…informing the public about the everyday, noncontroversial stuff that makes up the bulk of media content.

“Journalism’s likely future is in a small number of media companies expanding and a large number collapsing,” McArdle continues. “That obviously means big changes ahead…large swaths of the free internet are going to be paywalled off, and readers and journalists alike will have to learn to think of news as their parents did: as something you pay for, or do without.”

And as if the savage economics of modern journalism weren’t bad enough, we have the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue constantly lobbing verbal bombs at reporters – all in an effort, as he has admitted himself, to discredit journalists so that he can do what he wants without criticism.  Good God Almighty.  Where’s Jefferson when you need him?

Look, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, they’re not going anywhere. They have the national reputations and the financial scale to survive and grow.  But they’re not sending anybody to sit through the Sanitary Sewer Committee hearing in your township, are they?

Only local journalism would do that.  Whether they can or not is the question.

Back when I worked at the paper, as I came through the door to the newsroom at night to file my stories, at least four or five other reporters sat at their keyboards doing the very same thing.  That was about half of the full complement of full-time reporters we had working the entire county – plus around four copyeditors and page managers.

The last time I stuck my head in that newsroom, they only had one and a half reporters on staff, total.  That’s not going to cut it.

Support your local media.  Pay for a subscription.  If you’re a local business owner, purchase ads.  Insist that your local governmental bodies get covered.  They’re making decisions that impact you a lot more than the three-ring circus in DC ever will.

Think of it this way.  When no one’s minding the store, it’s easier to rob.  Make sure somebody’s always minding the store.  They’re called reporters.  And we need them.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes
* https://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/local-news-government-mayor-setti-warren/
** https://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2019/01/30/lt-div-class-libPageBodyLinebreak-gt-Fearing-for-lt-br-gt-journalism-lt-br-gt-lt-div-gt/stories/201901300048