“Every week,” writes Emma Allen in The New Yorker, “at least two American newspapers cease publication—a major loss for readers seeking local scoops.”
Scoops be damned. Most of us merely want a credible source to provide coverage of local government and high school sports. As a nation with only 6,380 surviving newspapers (1,230 dailies and 5,150 weeklies) and only 545 active websites—that focus primarily on covering either local or statewide news. The vast majority of digital-only news operations—90 percent—are in either urban centers or state capitals.
It isn’t hard to imagine an American landscape that is fast becoming a news desert.
More than a fifth of the nation’s citizens already live in news deserts—with very limited access to local news—or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts, finds the Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative. Seventy million people live in the more than 200 counties without a newspaper, or in the 1,630 counties with only one paper—usually a weekly—covering multiple communities spread over a vast area.
This is a crisis for our democracy and our society.
We are a nation divided between those who live and work in communities where there is an abundance of local news and those who don’t, finds the Northwestern University’s study. “Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally under-served communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain either print or digital news organizations.”
The watchdogs of school boards, city councils and courts are disappearing. The chroniclers of high school sports teams are missing. To say that this is a sad thing for these counties is to understate the case.
The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the raging spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens. Studies have shown that in communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at the checkout.
This, despite former President Trump’s calling the news media “the enemy of the people.”
Former White House chief of staff John Kelly disagrees.
“The media, in my view, and I feel very strongly about this, is not the enemy of the people,” said Kelly, who previously served as the secretary of Homeland Security. “We need a free media. That said, you have to be careful about what you are watching and reading, because the media has taken sides.”
“So if you only watch Fox News, because it’s reinforcing what you believe, you are not an informed citizen,” he added.
According to several estimates, as much as 85 percent of the news that feeds our democracy originates with newspapers, notes a report from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina.
“Since local newspapers have historically been equal parts business enterprises and civic institutions, the collapse of the for-profit business model that sustained newspapers until recently have also placed in jeopardy the journalistic mission.”
“Their advertising encouraged regional economic growth and development by helping local businesses connect with local consumers,” says the Hussman report. “Newspapers also nurtured social cohesion and political participation by putting into local context issues that may have seemed to be national ones, such as health care or gun control.”
In his decision favoring The Washington Post’s 1971 publishing of the Pentagon Papers, U.S. district court Judge Murray Gurfein declined to issue the injunction requested by Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist. He wrote that “the security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”
What is vital to our viability as a Democratic Republic is an informed citizenry involved with its communities. Far from the Beltway are thousands of governmental institutions whose inner workings need our attention and scrutiny. The seeming nonsense of issues our national office holders might seem important pale in comparison to local news. Government and business need to be monitored, reported and, when necessary, exposed.
Wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1787: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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.”
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
Easter lamb with peas
2# lamb shoulder, boned and cut into large chunks
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 large carrot, sliced
1 celery stalk, chopped
5 garlic cloves, crushed
2 oz. anchovy fillets in oil
Handful fresh thyme sprigs
1 red chili pepper, sliced
9 oz. dry white wine
1 oz. white wine vinegar
10 oz. frozen peas
2 large potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
8 oz. cherry tomatoes, halved
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Season the lamb with salt and black pepper. Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large pan and fry the onions, carrot, and celery for 4–5 minutes, or until softened. Add the garlic, anchovies, thyme and chili, and continue to cook, stirring, until the anchovies have almost dissolved into the oil. Add the lamb chunks and fry for a further 4–5 minutes, or until browned all over.
Stir in the wine and continue to cook until the volume of the liquid has reduced by half, then add the vinegar. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
Add the peas, potatoes, and tomatoes, cover and continue to cook for about an hour, until the sauce is reduced by half.
Serve hot with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the sauce.