A few weeks ago, a weekly in Kansas City found a clever way to highlight the plight of newspapers. The Northeast News, an 89-year-old publication, produced a blank front page, with nothing below the masthead.
The idea? To give readers “a peek into the potential future,” the managing editor explained.
Clark County residents are fortunate to have an independent, locally owned daily newspaper to keep tabs on government, report on high school sports, draw attention to new businesses and keep residents up to date on what is happening in our community. Many other locations are not so lucky.
The U.S. News Deserts project at the University of North Carolina reports that 200 counties across the country have no newspaper; about half have one newspaper – typically a weekly. In many other locations, hedge funds or conglomerates have purchased newspapers and slashed resources for news gathering.
That is devastating for democracy; an ill-informed public is ill-prepared to hold its government accountable – or elect effective leadership. Because of that, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act warrants attention in Congress.
“Local journalists and newspapers are essential to ensuring the public remains informed,” Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said in introducing the bill last year. “Local news is crucial – particularly within our rural communities in Central Washington – and our local journalists provide in-depth perspectives that inform their readership regarding local current events.”
Since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States. Now, the pressures of a changing media landscape have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. With businesses closing, temporarily or permanently, a decline in advertising revenue has led to the closure of 60 papers over the past year.
Many industries and individual businesses have felt the strain of COVID-19. Like other businesses, newspapers – including The Columbian – benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program. But at the risk of being presumptuous, few industries are essential to the very function of democracy.
As the Columbia Journalism Review reported last year: “Researchers found a strong association between newspaper circulation and corruption: the lower the circulation of newspapers in a country, the higher that country’s appearance on the corruption index.” The same dynamic applies at the local level.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would provide tax credits to incentivize reader subscriptions, newspapers to invest in newsrooms, and businesses to advertise with papers – or local TV and radio stations. “By empowering our local journalists, we can begin to help our newspapers remain resilient and continue to provide important information and updates to our rural communities,” Newhouse explained.
The legislation is co-sponsored by nine of Washington’s representatives, including Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground. Only Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, has not signed on.
Newhouse’s support for the bill is noteworthy. At a time when media is under constant attack from conservatives through claims of “fake news,” ensuring reliable reporting is essential. Newhouse, a strong conservative, recognizes the danger of having voters more likely to believe what they read on social media rather than a trusted news source.
Such trust is important for our country. Without it, the future might be as bleak as a blank newspaper page.