An informed electorate is essential to the functioning of representative democracy. In small-town rural America, we hold those in power accountable through the reporting of our community newspapers. Citizens make informed decisions on tax levies, elections, bond sales, the quality of our schools and healthcare facilities, and our communities’ safety through the reporting of their local newspapers.
However, this fundamental underpinning of a democratic society is endangered.
To assess the growing threat and seek solutions, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Michael Bennet of Colorado introduced the “Future of Local News Commission Act” last month. While the three are democrats, support for community news comes from both sides of the aisles.
The commission’s goal is to “examine and report on the role of local newsgathering in sustaining democracy in the United States and the factors contributing to the demise of local journalism.” It is also to “propose policies and mechanisms that could reinvigorate local news to meet the critical information needs of the people of the United States in the 21st century.”
To address a significant concern over government involvement in funding news, the commission also shall consider “guardrails” to ensure editorial independence “from government actors.”
“Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens, and an informed citizenry depends on accurate and unbiased news reporting to inform the people’s judgments,” the bill says.
It points out the devastating details revealed in a recent University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism study:
Since 2004, more than 2,100 newspapers have been lost with their loss accelerated this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 200 counties, with a combined population of 3.2 million people, no longer have a newspaper.
Newspaper ownership has become concentrated. Hedge funds and corporations whose sole interest is squeezing every last dime out of them have bought newspapers from owners all too willing to get out. Hundreds, or thousands, of miles away from the communities where the newspapers’ reporting is vital, they slash salaries by eliminating staff. Particularly hard hit are rural counties, which have lost 500 newspapers.
“Of the surviving 6,700 newspapers in the United States, at least 1,000 qualify as ‘ghost newspapers,”‘ the study says. These newspapers have lost so many reporters they can no longer adequately report the news of their communities.
The bill says that it is time for newsgathering and reporting to be seen as the public good supported by public funds.
Thirteen people would be appointed to the commission. Four each would be appointed by the leaders of the two parties in the Senate and House. Two would be appointed by the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and two by the chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The 13th member would be appointed by the CEO of the United States Agency for Global Media.
The commission would include representatives from print, internet and broadcast media, on both the business and employee sides. Public media and private enterprise are to be represented. A university representative and someone whose expertise is in civics are to be included. Appointees would represent the geographic regions of America.
We see one critical flaw in the proposed makeup of the commission. In its criteria for who is to be represented, it says: “Local county editor or journalist of a news outlet with circulation or readership of no more than 75,000.”
According to the U.S. Census, 76 percent of the nearly 19,500 incorporated cities in the United States (14,768) have fewer than 5,000 people.
Without a representative from communities under 5,000 population, it would leave the vast majority of newspapers and communities in America without a voice. It would leave out newspapers most reliant on print to survive. It would leave out communities where printed newspapers are often the only source of local reporting. Absent would be communities where the internet provides little or no income for newspapers and lacks the potential for their future viability. Without a small town publisher on the commission, one who owns one or just a few newspapers, the commission will be out of touch with the reality of the threat to journalism in rural America.
If formed, the commission is to conduct hearings to gather the information and report back to Congress after a year.
In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission released a study titled: The Information Needs of Communities. It came at a time when many were euphoric about the potential of the internet. They believed it would lead to a new, vibrant news ecosystem. It was before the reality of what the internet has become today and its decimation of journalism in America. It was long before we heard of “news deserts.”
Still, it saw the potential danger ahead. It saw the internet was leaving communities without local reporting. It warned of the potential for “more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems.” Those worries have been magnified in recent years as more and more community newspapers have been lost or seen their staffs shredded.
“As the daughter of a newspaperman, I understand how important local news is to communities across the country,” Klobuchar, whose father Jim Klobuchar was a reporter and columnist for the Star Tribune, said. “As Americans look to their local and regional news sources for information during this pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we keep local news strong. A free press is vital to our system of government and the Future of Local News Commission Act would help ensure that we preserve the newspapers, radio stations, and broadcasters that keep their communities informed.”
Nothing came of the 2011 FCC report. Democracy doesn’t have another nine years to wait for meaningful action.
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson saw danger in citizens disengaged from knowledge required to keep their leaders accountable. “Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves,” the nation’s third president wrote.