The [news]Paperless Future is Now along with Civic Ignorance and Unaccountability

David Horsey’s op ed News deserts spread across Washington | The Seattle Times
Journalists are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s observation that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Less noted are the many highly critical comments Jefferson made about the highly partisan press of his era, including, “As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.”

He loathed the newspapers that plagued him, but nevertheless, America’s third president never reneged on his contention that newspapers, at their best, were even more important to society than government. Disturbingly, we are now testing whether democracy can survive the arrangement that was less appealing to Jefferson – government without newspapers.

News deserts are spreading across the country and our state has not escaped the drying up of news sources. A new study produced by the League of Women Voters of Washington outlines how newspapers in every part of the state are going out of business or are being gutted by distant corporate owners.

Over the last two decades, of the 140 newspapers that were once operating in Washington, two dozen weeklies and three dailies have stopped publication and newsroom staffing is collectively down by 67%. The problem is especially dire in more rural counties where, in many instances, there is just one weekly newspaper still struggling to survive. 

Even worse, many of the remaining newspapers are virtual ghosts. Rather than being owned by a local publisher, distant owners with no real interest in the community bleed the newspaper dry by sucking away revenue while leaving the publication with inadequate resources and a few underpaid, overworked reporters and editors. This is the case, not just in small towns, but in bigger cities, too. The News Tribune in Tacoma was once a major media player in the state. Now, the number of employees has been reduced from 120 people to little more than two dozen since Tacoma’s major source of local information was taken over by a hedge fund a few years ago.

What happens when a newspaper disappears or fades into a hollow shell? The Legislature, city hall, school boards, planning commissions and other governing entities are free to operate with little scrutiny and citizens are left in the dark. The knowledge of shared interests and concerns grows feeble, and communities grow less connected. Corruption thrives, ignorance increases, and rumors replace facts.

Jefferson would be appalled.

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