Admittedly, I have a dog in the fight. But so do you.
The condition of local news in this country is distressing. In fact, according to a new report from PEN America, it is a “national crisis” resulting in an ill-informed citizenry. That is kind of important when it comes to voting or even being motivated to vote. And it is kind of important when it comes to holding officials accountable or knowing how your tax dollars are spent.
As the report, released last week, reads: “A vibrant, responsive democracy requires enlightened citizens, and without forceful local reporting they are kept in the dark. At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and more elusive than ever.”
OK, OK, that might sound like a bit of self- importance. And it probably resonates with somebody who has been in the news business for 30 years more than it does with you. But, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
Yes, we’ve used that quote before; we’ll probably use it again. Such is the heft of a Thomas Jefferson quote. If Jefferson had written, “I should wish that every man endeavor to eat a kumquat every day of his life,” we’re guessing the Consortium of Kumquat Eaters would frequently remind us of those words.
PEN America is a New York-based nonprofit that, according to its website, “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide.” A couple years ago, the organization launched a study of areas where local news is scarce and found that they are more numerous than expected. Since 2004, more than 1,800 local print publications have closed; more than 200 counties have no newspaper at all.
That can make it difficult to keep an eye on the city council or the school board. Take the idea known as A Stronger Vancouver; without The Columbian, you probably would not be very aware of the proposal being considered by the city council to raise an additional $30 million a year in revenue. Or take the Battle Ground school board’s decision to eliminate sex education from schools; without The Columbian, you would be less informed about the debate that led to the decision.
In many parts of the country, citizens are left in the dark without even realizing there is a power outage. According to a poll this year from Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans believe their local news outlets are doing well financially, but only 14 percent say they paid for or donated to a local news source in the previous year. Believe it or not, news outlets need revenue to keep people employed and keep the lights on. With the internet changing the economic model and drying up revenue streams, all newspapers — including The Columbian — have seen drastic staff cuts over the past 15 years that lead to a less-informed public.
As one of the conclusions from the PEN America report states: “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.” The result is a society in which “alternative facts” are allowed to fester.
In Vancouver, we have a locally owned newspaper that has managed to avoid being bought out by hedge fund conglomerates more concerned with stockholders than the local citizens. Revenue remains in the community. Many communities cannot say the same, and the populace is less-informed because of it.
All of this, I suppose, is a pitch for subscribing and advertising with your local paper. Take it for what it’s worth; like I said, I have a dog in the fight. But so do you.