Local Newspapers Inform and Protect

Jonathan Russell

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Or so the saying goes. Local newspapers and news coverage are vitally important to a functioning, civically engaged community. This fact is important to remember in an age of disappearing local news coverage.

I was inspired to write this column after reading The Manhattan Institute’s Urban Policy 2018, “News Deserts: No News is Bad News” by Judith Miller. In her piece, Miller painted a dreary picture of local newspapers in communities across the country. In the U.S., the number of local newspapers has dropped from 8,972 in 2004 to 7,112 in 2018. Of those remaining, only 1,283 are dailies. We have to look no further than to our neighbors in Reading who are sadly losing their local newspaper.

Many of the newspapers that do exist have been bought up by large media conglomerates. In fact, the top 25 news conglomerates own over one-third of all newspapers including two-thirds of all dailies and a quarter of all weeklies. When a large conglomerate purchases a local newspaper, one of the first places to face cuts is the local news bureau. (University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, “The Expanding News Desert”). These large conglomerates can also be heavy-handed in deciding which news stories receive attention and which don’t. In the worst-case scenarios, these conglomerates are used to advance a political motive or move public opinion on an influential person or organization.

Why are local newspapers important? Local newspapers cover issues that are by default local. Reporters attend City Council meetings, County Commissioner meetings, School Board meetings, Township meetings, and any public gathering during which decisions are made. They act as watchdogs, alerting the public to wrongdoings by public officials or to substantial changes on the horizon. The mere act of having reporters present at a public event reduces the chance for corruption, bribery, and inadequate decision making. As the comedian, John Oliver put it, “Not having reporters at government meetings is like a teacher leaving her room of seventh graders to supervise themselves.”

One of the most pervasive forms of media is the nightly televised local news. While local televised news does cover local issues, a study by Marty Kaplan at the University of Southern California, showed that in a half-hour broadcast, an average of 22 seconds was allocated for local government coverage – including coverage on budget, law enforcement, education, layoffs, new ordinances, voting procedures, personnel changes, city, and county government actions on health care, transportation, and immigration. Clearly, local television is not a substitute for local newspapers.

When local news coverage goes away, the public’s check on those in decision making positions is diminished. Influence on policymakers comes from those most biased on the issues. Without local newspapers to educate the general public, decisions on important issues become unduly influenced by lobbyists and special interest groups. A study done by economists at the University of Chicago and Notre Dame found that when a local paper closed, or reduced publishing rates, municipal borrowing increased by five to eleven percent within three years and that individual taxpayer bills rose by $85 per year. Another study published in The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, by Alicia Adsera, Carles Boix, and Mark Payne shows that when a newspaper leaves a country or region, instances of corruption spike.

Local newspapers also help to build a strong sense of community. According to a Pew Research Center study, “the roughly one-in-five U.S. adults (19%) who feel highly attached to their communities demonstrate much stronger ties to local news than those who do not feel attached—revealing a link between personal connection to the area and a desire to stay more informed about current issues and events.” When these newspapers go away, the connection to one’s community is diminished.

Yes, there are many truly frightening consequences of losing an independent local newspaper.

At the top of this column, I used the old adage, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. Local newspaper reporting, along with powerful tools such as the Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Act, provide the much-needed sunlight for local decision making by keeping the public informed. Newspapers are crucial to ensuring a civically engaged population, encouraging community connectedness, and for providing a check on those in positions of influence. In this era of expanding news deserts, we need local newspapers more than ever.

The Hourglass would like to congratulate Lancaster Newspapers for 225 years of continued local news coverage to the Lancaster community.

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