Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?
The death of newspapers – by cutbacks, outright disappearance, or morphing into lean websites – means a reduction of watchdog reporting and less local information. Some say it has caused a drop in civic participation. Is it a blow to good citizenship?
(Page 2 of 6)
More than sentiment is at stake. The number of American daily newspapers has fallen from 1,878 in 1940 to 1,382 last year. When daily newspapers die, communities become less connected and collaborative, new studies suggest. Economists and media researchers are seeing a drop-off in civic participation – the same kind of collective vigor readers showed in fighting for The Times-Picayune – after the presses stop rolling.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"More of American life now occurs in shadow. And we cannot know what we do not know," said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, testifying at a 2009 Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing on the future of news.
New research suggests that fewer people vote after their communities lose a daily print newspaper. Fewer run for office. Fewer boycott – or buy – something based on what they think of a company's values. Fewer contact public leaders to voice opinions. Fewer pitch in with neighborhood groups. More incumbent politicians get reelected. And these things happen despite the presence of digital and broadcast media.
What you don't know may hurt you
Tom Stites founded the Banyan Project – an initiative to develop reader-owned, online news cooperatives, which he incubated as a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society – because he worries about "news deserts."
"A news desert is a community whose sources of original reporting have dried up entirely, or are diminished to the point where they can no longer fill the information needs of the communities they serve," he explains. Mr. Stites is working to build a pilot website in Haverhill, Mass., a place he describes as "an obvious news desert."
The town used to have a daily paper. But in 1998, the daily Haverhill Gazette was sold and pared down to once a week.
Not long after, disaster struck the 60,000-person community. Between 1999 and 2001, the town-owned Hale Municipal Hospital lost $15 million, according to Boston Business Journal. Inaccurate filings by a private manager obscured the extent of the problem, which piled on top of preexisting debt and led to the hospital's sale in 2001. Citizens are still on the hook, repaying $7 million annually until 2023.
"I think a good newspaper would have helped our community do a better job," says John Cuneo, who runs a local antipoverty nonprofit. Robust reporting, he suggests, might have mitigated the crisis and given citizens a more critical assessment.
He and other community members say a lack of daily news coverage leaves Haverhill residents in the dark about local events. "If we're throwing a fundraiser or trying to advance a community cause, it's a lot harder to get coverage than it used to be," he explains. (For these reasons and others, Mr. Cuneo now volunteers with the Banyan Project to develop its pilot site, Haverhill Matters.)
Dissenting from the notion that Haverhill is undercovered is Al White, editor of the Eagle-Tribune. The company, whose downtown Haverhill office closed in March, still publishes a regional paper covering more than a dozen towns including Haverhill, along with the weekly Haverhill Gazette.