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Media and Democracy: Why Local Newsrooms Need Your Support

Written by Chuck Plunkett

Your local newsroom is in trouble. Independent press is vanishing at an alarming rate: since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed. Here’s why you should care and what you can do to support media and democracy. 

By the time you get out of school and start working in the real world, you become intimately aware there are just some things society needs to survive. You’ve got to have the institutions that nurture, guide, and protect. Schools, police, political leaders, and the many builders and technicians of infrastructure. Yes, even the Department of Motor Vehicles. Since the earliest days of our grand democratic experiment, the pinnacle, the peak of these desperately needed institutions has been a free, independent, vigorous press.  

The Risk of Government Without Newspapers

These days, it’s easy to forget the wisdom of so many of the founders of our democracy. Easy to forget the meaning and power of the First Amendment. Easy to forget that Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

“Should it be left to me to decide whether to have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson

Read that again. Newspapers without a government. We also easily forget our place in the universe, so great is our trust in technology. Such hubris it bestows. But, it’s important to remember that the level of civilization available to us now in the 21st century represents but a mark on our species’ long, too-often hateful slog of a timeline. 

For such a long time, instinctual reasoning drove our forebears. For such a long time, the barbarians lurked just outside the village, the city walls, the fragile agreements we made and continue to make with one another to hold them at bay. Reductionist, sure, but that’s how civilization functions.

Media and Democracy: Newspapers are a Gift

It’s a fight. We’re fighting against the barbarian in us, and the barbarian is everywhere. Against the ruinous creep of chaos and barbarism arose, like a messiah, the birth of the newspaper. Such a tremendous gift to humankind.

Professional journalism’s best practices, its code of ethics, its mission – what we teach in university journalism programs – have undeniably guided, nurtured, entertained, protected and advanced our civilization.

While it’s never lived up to its full potential and never will, the newspaper has always been a miracle of human invention. A celebration of human imagination that sustains and guides and gives life and freedom. Over the decades, it got better and better. Since at least the 1940s, the promise and ability of its journalists have been one of humankind’s central defining characteristics.

The State of Journalism: No Media, No Democracy

That’s true of the best of the big national papers and it’s true all the way down to the local paper. When you’ve got a properly staffed newsroom in your corner, one whose marching orders are clearly focused on good journalism, your town’s destined for greatness. Its citizens destined to achieve their full potential.

Yet, this brilliant, illuminating miracle represents just a flash on our timeline, and it’s a light easily distinguished. What’s the first rule of thumb employed by every authoritarian ruler who ever lived or lives? Kill the journalists. Or at least crush them and install mouthpieces in their place.

Consider last year’s disappearance of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As The Guardian noted at the time, Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova became the third journalist killed in the European Union that year. UNESCO reports that 1,010 journalists have been killed around the world from 2006 to 2017, and nine in 10 of the murders went unsolved. So grave is the danger in reporting in Russia that since 1991, Dec. 15 marks a remembrance day for journalists killed there.

I mention it because right now our local newsrooms are being crushed and ground into dust. Since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed.

Entire communities have become news deserts. Thousands of journalists are no longer minding the store. 

Colorado Newspapers are Disappearing

Here in Colorado, a recently released white paper details the grim reality. The paper comes from a small group of serious-minded folks from within and outside newsrooms called the Colorado Media Project. They’ve been hard at work since the hedge fund owners of the once-great Denver Post struck the newsroom a mortal blow in the spring of 2018.

Where once The Post – The Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire – benefited from a staff of more than 300 journalists, it’s been cut and cut and cut to its present staff of 70. The Post isn’t alone. 

The Media Project found that since 2004, Colorado lost 33, or almost one in every five, of its newspapers. 

At least 44 local owners are nearing retirement and likely looking to sell or close-up shop. Hundreds of Colorado journalists are no longer at work.

For every professional journalist toiling in the trenches, there are almost 10 public relations flacks standing in the way. Thirty counties have but one paper, usually a weekly. The impact hurts rural counties the most, as the farther away they are from the Front Range, the less likely their stories will be told. One county in Colorado – Baca – has no paper at all. Meanwhile, despite its friendly-sounding name, social media has proved mostly the opposite of a solution.

We also need professionals. We need the journalists, or the whole bizarre contraption will fall to sabotage. The barbarians are everywhere, and they’re way too good at mucking up the Facebook and Twitter streams of our lives. So what to do?

How Your Support Can Save Local Newsrooms

At TEDxMileHigh Humankind, I gave a talk in which I argued we must begin the debate for a public funding option or risk the collapse of our grand democratic experiment. [/vc_column_text]

Afterward, I joined a committee within the Colorado Media Project that just released that white paper with all its alarming findings.

Thankfully, this group, staffed with some of the state’s best journalistic and public policy minds, also offers solutions. Real-world ideas for righting the ship with enough public support to keep serious newsrooms in operation at all levels of our lives.

Expand Colorado’s Special District Law

My favorite among the ideas would require that state lawmakers expand Colorado’s existing special district law. That’s the one that stands up the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District whose museums, scientific, and cultural amenities are so popular in our state. Why not create a newspaper and information district that communities could decide whether to put in place in their towns? Such a model, with responsibly defined management, would be a big boost. It’s also scalable; the lessons from communities who do it well would be easily transferable. 

Extend Sales Tax to Online Giants, Etc.

The Media Project’s paper includes a handful of other ideas well worth consideration, among them, extending the state’s 2.9% sales tax to include advertising revenue for the online giants that helped destroy state and local journalism even while benefiting enormously from its content.

Read Colorado Media Project’s White Paper

If you care about democracy, this is a white paper you should read. At the very least, give the much-condensed executive summary a look. There are seeds of greatness in these pages.

Even Watchdogs Need Protection

We can’t stand by and let our watchdogs be put down. We cannot allow more of our communities to vanish into darkness. 

Newsrooms need our help. It is time to have this debate. It is time for action. 

Support local newsrooms you see doing good work. Engage your friends and family on the need to do so as well. And sure, if you want to help the cause with all you’ve got, consider a degree in journalism. We’ll leave the light on for you.

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