Community Matters: Democracy needs journalism
As millions of voters across the country cast their ballots this week, they did so under the shadow of an alarming new Associated Press poll showing that nearly three-quarters of Americans fear that democracy and the rule of law are under serious threat.
Poll respondents were divided on the cause, with Democrats citing the potential for political violence and recent attempts to overturn legitimate election results, while most Republicans said they believed government had too much power and, erroneously, that large numbers of people were voting illegally.
Fear, distrust, suspicion and rabid partisanship has left this year’s electorate feeling angry and frustrated.
Many factors have driven us to this sad situation, but the most salient is the precipitous decline of local journalism coupled with the accelerating spread of digital misinformation and disinformation.
The economic collapse of local and regional news reporting over the last two decades began when unregulated tech giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Craigslist and others drained local news organizations of the advertising revenue upon which they once relied to produce trustworthy journalism. More than 2,000 American newspapers have closed in the last 15 years and most who have survived are producing far less news for their communities.
Filling this gaping news void are opinion-focused cable television channels, talk radio stations and malignant social media corporations that profit by inundating users with addictive algorithms that spread harmful misinformation. By perversely exploiting our deepest ideological beliefs, these platforms keep us in a state of perpetual fear and anger, thereby maximizing the likelihood we’ll keep engaging. Rather than inform and educate, social media’s deviant business model is predicated on agitating users and maximizing divisiveness to boost corporate profits.
Accurate local news reporting is rapidly disappearing in this media crisis that threatens our democracy, our society and our communities.
What exactly happens when a community loses its newspaper? According to numerous studies, less “watchdog” news reporting leads to reduced government accountability, more waste and corruption, less effective schools, lower voter participation, higher taxes and increased public ignorance.
I was keenly reminded of this while attending a recent reception at the West County Museum in Sebastopol where its latest exhibit traced the long history of the town’s newspapers from 1889. While I’d enjoyed working as a reporter, editor and publisher in Sebastopol in the 1980s, due to the recent demise the 131-year-old local newspaper, it was like attending a funeral for an old friend.
Despite having received considerable community donations in a direct public offering, the weekly newspaper’s publisher was forced to shut it down a couple years ago.
The paper was later replaced by a digital email newsletter and website operated by a non-profit news organization. But even managing the all-digital newspaper proved too onerous and the plug was pulled earlier this year, together with the affiliated news websites in Windsor and Cloverdale.
A brand-new Sebastopol Times website is up and running today that’s operated by a digital magazine publisher and news editor. While striving mightily to provide some local news coverage to the community, it offers a small fraction provided by its predecessors.
The 157-year-old Healdsburg Tribune newspaper is currently on life support, having been acquired earlier this year by a San Jose-based newspaper group. But it’s anemic and looks nothing like its precursor.
Closer to home, the Novato Advance weekly newspaper, which had operated continuously since 1922, ceased publication several years ago. A digital replacement is carrying some limited news items, but I found little news coverage in advance of this week’s Novato City Council election and wondered how people would know how to vote.
Marin County’s daily newspaper, the Independent Journal, is owned by Alden Global Capital, a large and secretive New York City hedge fund with a terrible reputation for buying newspapers, selling off their real estate and equipment assets and gutting their newsrooms to generate enormous profits for shareholders. Largely because of such practices, the IJ is a shell of what it once was.
According to recent news reports, Alden is trying desperately to acquire the media company that owns the Napa Valley Register to wreak a similarly predatory path across that county.
Unlike what has happened in other communities near and far, Petaluma has enjoyed a continuously operating newspaper covering city affairs since 1855. The Argus’ parent company, Sonoma Media Investments, also owns the Press Democrat, the Sonoma Index-Tribune, the North Bay Business Journal, a monthly magazine and a host of websites and digital newsletters.