I have been a newspaperman for most of a 63-year career, covering a presidential assassination, the Vietnam War, a landing by Americans on the Moon, the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the same year, the 9/11 terrorists attack that brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole into the Pentagon while thousands died at the events, a bungled war in Iraq and the share of two corrupt presidents.
At this late point in life, I now wonder if I will outlive my chosen profession where newspapers close and/or gutted every couple of weeks and residents in too many towns, cities and counties are left with no source of news on their communities or states.
Every couple of weeks you can read about another newspaper shutting its doors, or moving from daily to weekly, or hollowing out its newsroom until it’s little more than a skeleton staff bulked up with j-school students. Study the maps made by Penny Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University and an expert on dwindling sources of news, and you can seethe dead zones — the 200 or so counties with no local paper. About 1,600 other counties have only one.
Local news is the oxygen of democracy, the most trusted source for the most essential information, and we’ve long known why dying newsrooms damage communities. But look at the maps again, and another alarming picture comes into focus: The very places where local news is disappearing are often the same places that wield disproportionate political power.
This phenomenon affects Americans living far away from the news deserts. Demographers predict that by 2040,one-third of Americans will pick 70 percent of the Senate.
Think of a typical voter in South Dakota, with its single congressional district and, of course, two senators for a population of about 895,000. Thanks to the Senate’s structural bias toward less-populated states, that gives each of the nearly 600,000 registered votersinSouth Dakota about 28 times more power in that body than each of the 17 million voters in Texas. When it comes to electing presidents, that South Dakota voter carries twice the weight in the electoral college as their Texas counterpart.
But with all that added clout for shaping the composition of Congress and, less directly, the Supreme Court and the White House, the voters in about half of South Dakota’s 66 counties have only a single weekly newspaper. Seven counties have no newspaper at all.
You could do the same math for residents of Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont or Delaware, all states with similarly enhanced political clout. But finding reliable local news sources is much harder in the first three — geographically larger, rural states with dispersed populations, which are much more likely to lack high-speed internet as well. In contrast, Delaware’s three small counties have 13 newspapers; Vermont’s 14 counties have 39.
By now we know quite a bit about why this matters. The citizens whose votes count the most might have the hardest time learning about the issues and candidates running in their communities — because there’s no longer anyone reporting on them. Since 2005, newspaper employment has fallen 70 percent, Abernathy calculates, and local TV, radio and new digital start-ups don’t begin to make up for that decline. Fewer knowledgeable local reporters means less accountability, leading to higher public spending, lower social cohesion, fewer people voting or running for office, less ticket-splitting and more polarization as people rely on national news sources. In 1992, a third of the states with Senate races picked a senator from one party and the president from the other. In 2016, not a single state did so, and that hadn’t happened in 100 years.
I spent 23 years working out of Washington, DC, where my photographs and news stories appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times and wire services. My first news photograph sale came in 1958 when I crawled through the brush of a forest to photograph a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in Prince Edward County, Virginia. I was 11 at the time and went to work as a full-time reporter and photographer for the weekly Floyd Press in that state while attending high school before taking my first daily newspaper job at The Roanoke Times, again in Virginia, at age 17 in 1965.
Four years later, John Focht, the managing editor of The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, offered me a raise of $60 dollars a week as a reporter and photographer. Alton was in the St. Louis metro area. During 12 years there, I also become the paper’s first local columnist and covered news, the education beat that included Southern Illinois University, politics of local state and national elections, an expanded drug problem, and 10 years of music at the Mississippi River Festival.
The move to Washington in 1981 brought assignments to trouble spots like Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I covered the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon, Space Shuttle launches and landings, and Presidential successes and failures and more.
A planned retirement in 2004 was short-lived when the editor of the newspaper in our new home in the Blue Ridge mountains of Southwestern Virginia asked me to start shooting photos of high school sports, then cover the board of supervisors and other news and features. I became a contract reporter and photographer for the chain that owned the paper and remain one today for their current owner, Lee Newspapers, who also owns former employer Roanoke Times.
As a career newspaperman, I have witnessed the determination of papers and local journalism firsthand and that situation saddens and infuriates someone who has spent his life trying to cover local news. Will I, at age 75, live longer than the profession I have loved and served for more than 60 years? I hope not but the future and outlook is dim, at best.
In her excellent article in The Washington Post, Nancy Gibb, who is director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University worried about the changing media environment on partisan politics and who thrives in such in today’s environment:
Partisan players are well aware of the opportunity presented when a local paper dies. Potemkin sites that mimic authentic newsrooms have popped up across the country, more than 1,300 in all; they have the look and feel of reliable information sources, but their content is often partisan noise, produced by dark-money-funded propaganda factories. A single purveyor, Metric Media, claims to post more than 5 million stories a month. All kinds of disinformation and conspiracy theories find the desiccated news deserts to be fertile ground.
We are dealing with a disruption of the entire ecology of information at the very moment when 78 percent of Americans say we can no longer agree even on basic facts. Local news is a crucial piece of a larger problem, and we can’t truly understand the forces threatening democracy without reckoning with that larger environment — both the disappearance of critical sources of essential information and the swelling of information streams that contaminate our public space.
In 1994, I started Capitol Hil Blue, an online political news site that is now the oldest continuing daily source of news on national policies and government. In the area where we live, I also own a hyper-local news site called Blue Ridge Muse, which covers governmental and other happenings in Southwestern Virginia. Several such sites also exist in Virginia.
Is it enough? Not even close. Such sites are often one-person operations that depend on help from volunteers, but it is an attempt to keep the news flowing in communities. In Blue RidgeMuse, we exposed a scam by a claimed data center operator who tried to con a local government into spending thousands of dollars on a proposed data center that never came about when we reported on the places where they made similar promises that turned out to be false.
We also exposed a local politician who charged higher than allowed sales taxes in his restaurant for years. He was pocketing the excess.
Small steps can help keep readers informed but we need more practitioners of the practice and the support of readers.
I’d rather see that happening than attend the funeral of newspapers that local communities need as a source of news and information.
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