When Local Papers Go Under, Democracy Follows

Scott Deshefy


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American newspapers are traceable to Jamestown, Virginia (1619), even before the tradition fully evolved in England, but long after news summaries appeared in Germany and the Netherlands. Mostly one-off “broadsides,” it wasn’t until the 1690s before regularly-produced newsprint started to appear. The first daily in NYC, newsprint’s Mecca, was published in 1783 by Noah Webster, who gave America its first dictionary. By 1800 the still fledgling nation had 200 newspapers in circulation. By 1860, with affordable “penny presses” boosting readership in many cities, there were 3,000. Since 1800, when the first periodical was published in a NYC prison, 500 newspapers have been mimeographed or printed in penitentiaries. Considering we incarcerate more citizens than any other nation ─ over 2 million in 2019 ─ prison news publications represent large, if isolated, dimensions of the medium. By late 19th, early 20th centuries, an estimated 20,000 different newspapers, ranging from dailies to weeklies, monthlies to quarterlies, became our cultural-evolution’s Burgess Shale. Mercantile and political papers advanced social reforms advocated by third party candidates. Working and middle class causes and blue collar life columns became starters for staff writers like Carl Sandburg and O. Henry. Newsstands and carrier bags filled from photographic advances, improved literacy and labor’s hard-fought leisure gains. With the invention of linotypes (1884), almost half the world’s newspapers were printed in the U.S. War correspondents and casualty reports (beginning during Crimean and U.S. Civil Wars) pushed sales, as did manifest destiny and other expansionist propaganda instigating conflicts. As evolving sports became popular, spiking circulation, transoceanic cables told readers of Krakatoa’s explosion (1883) within a day. Well-before yellow journalism and circulation battles between Joseph Pulitzer and Wm Randolph Hearst, Americans were already addicted to newspapers. Even after broadcast journalism, they influenced public life and bent the course of human history towards reason. Printed or on-line, newspapers’ multi-source reporting remains a credible countervailing force against disinformation, especially today.

Recent data show there were 1,279 daily U.S. newspapers in 2018, a drop from 1,748 in 1970. Since 2004, over 2,000 newspapers (~25% of circulation) have disappeared or been absorbed through mergers. Some are quotidian, most weekly. What survives is smaller, weaker; ripe for acquisition. Wealthy families, oft-imperfect administrative guardians, owned the bulk of local papers. Pre-internet advertising bonanzas produced investment capital with which other businesses were bought, creating powerful moguls through overreach. By 2004, not only were free-access digital challenges and unpredictable market forces distressing papers, but vulture-like investors learned to strip mine them, leaving uninformed communities as tailings. Now, fully half of all dailies are controlled by financial firms. Since the end of the Great Recession, Alden Global Capital, a secretive, rapacious hedge fund determined to extract short-term profit from marginally-run newspapers, has slashed reporters’ and editors’ jobs and decimated journalism in dozens of cities from San Jose to Boston. Alden holds rights to over 200 printed news outlets, making it second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Gutted by greed, highly respected, award-winning newsrooms like the Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, The Baltimore Sun, and the New York Daily News have been bled of assets for Alden’s investors. The draconian modus operandi is hollow-out staff, cut property to the bone, and gouge subscription prices until papers fold or become shells of former selves. Alden, especially, has a knack for aggressive cost cutting, worsening product and alienating readers. It’s an investment strategy without compunction for social consequences. Research confirms that, when local papers go under, civic engagement and voter turnouts decline, crime and polarization increase, and political corruption goes unchecked. Moreover, the community is less reliably and objectively informed, making democracy/the Constitution null and void. Politico found Donald Trump performed best in 2016 in regions with limited access to locally-printed news. Support local, evidence-based news sources, printed and on-line! The Fourth Estate needs porches and pillars in every settlement, city and town.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.