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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?

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Bell had become a news de-sert, largely ignored by neighboring media, with no dedicated coverage of its own. With residents' annual income averaging below $13,000, it wasn't exactly a magnet for advertisers, newspapers' traditional source of revenue.

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"It was years ago that Bell had a community newspaper. It was called the Bell, Maywood, Cudahy Community News," wrote Brian Hews, publisher of the Los Cerritos Community Newspaper, which is head-quartered 10 miles from Bell, in a postmortem of the scandal. "I know this because it was part of a larger newspaper group my family owned. Art Aguilar was the editor at the time, and, suffice to say, you did not mess with Art. Coincidentally, we sold those papers in 1998, right around the time Bell hired [Rizzo]." Eventually, the News shut down.

There's no telling whether a tiny, now-defunct paper would have detected – or deterred – corruption in Bell. But it's also impossible to know how many communities, in the absence of watchdog institutions, are currently getting hollowed out from within.

"In short, the Bell spectacle is what happens to communities without their own old-fashioned diligent news coverage by veteran newspaper reporters, or at least smart reporters led by veteran newspaper editors," Terry Francke, the cofounder and general counsel of open-government group Californians Aware, wrote on the Voice of OC website. "The result need not be on paper, but it must be done with the community memory and professional savvy almost unique to newspaper-trained journalists with experience watching small-town politics."

Information = participation

Civic value, however, doesn't always equate to market value. And in the words of digital media theorist Clay Shirky, " 'You're gonna miss us when we're gone!' has never been much of a business model."

In the past five years, newspapers distributing 25,000 copies or more on an average day have seen circulation plunge by 21 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. "Most printed daily newspapers will be gone in about five years," predicted a January report by the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. (Even The Onion, which once satirically attributed 93 percent of newspaper sales to ransom-note writers, was forced to cut its weekly West Coast print editions.)

But the real challenge for civil society isn't propping up dying newspapers. It's about funding and disseminating the kind of journalism that holds leaders accountable and knits communities together.

Newsgathering's business model broke when advertising dollars didn't follow the migration of content from print to the Internet. Jeff Zucker, head of NBC Universal, famously cautioned the media in 2008 against "trading analog dollars for digital pennies." The alternative to that, however, remains unclear.


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