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Community Matters: Democracy needs journalism

Former publisher John Burns’ regular column of local news and issues.|

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.

The company is widely respected in the state’s news industry for having overcome many of the severe economic hurdles that have bankrupted many other media companies. It achieved this with some unique innovations and by making tough decisions to reduce costs, including shutting down its venerable printing facility in Rohnert Park last spring. The job cuts were painful but necessary to ensure that local journalists continue reporting the news residents value and support with their subscription dollars.

But major challenges remain. A new state law, strongly advocated by labor unions, will soon require contract newspaper carriers to be treated as employees rather than independent contractors, adding significant costs to the company’s overhead.

Realizing the law would drive up the cost of newspaper deliveries and possibly trigger the elimination of some print newspapers altogether, the legislature graciously agreed to postpone the law’s implementation to 2025.

But the changes will come and further undermine the public’s access to news.

So, what can you do?

Tell your state representatives to find ways to help, not hurt, local news media companies.

Thank your Congressman, Jared Huffman, for co-sponsoring the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act that would allow news organizations to negotiate as a group with Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook on how those companies use and pay for news content.

Encourage Congressman Huffman to pursue updated anti-trust legislation to prohibit these same corporations from continuing to use such an extraordinarily harmful business model.

Buy a newspaper subscription as a Christmas gift for a friend or relative.

Shop at a business that advertises in your local newspaper and tell them how much you appreciate their support of local journalism.

Donate to a philanthropic organization working to support local journalism initiatives.

For democracy to work, voters need to be informed about the actions and policies of their government. For the sake of preserving our democracy, fair and accurate journalism needs all the support it can get.

(John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com)

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