In November 1919, Walter Lippmann published an article in The Atlantic entitled “The Basic Problem of Democracy.” Despite the passage of time, it feels eerily prescient. Lippmann argued that a free press was essential for democracy. Without it:
Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information. But where all news comes at second-hand, where all the testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not the realities themselves, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses. The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is.
While the need for independent journalism has never been greater, we live in an age where one of its traditional bastions, the newspaper, faces an uncertain future. The 21st century has been marked by a dramatic decline in the number of publications and the number of journalists.
Why did newspapers decline?
While it can be tempting to blame the Internet for the decline of traditional print journalism, the truth is more complex. The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of major newspaper ‘chains’ like Gannett that pursued an expansionist policy fueled by cheap credit which saw them acquire more and more titles in the belief that this would help them cut costs and increase revenue.
Their business model was highly dependent on classified ads. At the time, this was a viable strategy since the average person didn’t have access to many alternatives. But as the Internet grew in popularity, sites like Craigslist offered a free alternative to the traditional classified ad. That would’ve been bad enough on its own, but businesses were also shifting their advertising away from print in favor of digital.
There was also a generational shift. The Web let consumers access information for free. And as early as 2004, young people were saying that newspapers were their least-favorite source of news.
Many newspaper publishers responded by laying off journalists and reducing the size of their print offerings. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment in the US fell by 26% since 2008. Some even stopped publishing in hard copy in favor of a digital-only strategy. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that American newspapers have been closing at a rate of two per week. A study by Northwestern University predicts that one-third of the newspapers that were around 20 years ago will go out of business by 2025.
What would happen if newspapers disappeared?
While the entire newspaper sector is hurting, the loss of small, local papers has been especially devastating, creating an increasing number of ‘news deserts.’ Northwestern has estimated that 70 million Americans live in areas where there is either no local news or one that’s struggling. They also report that seven percent of US counties now lack a daily newspaper.
Their hyper-local coverage is essential because, when local newspapers shut their doors, there might not be anyone to take over. This can lead to a rising tide of misinformation and increased political polarization. It can also allow corruption in politics and business to go unchecked. In fact, one study even suggested that a lack of local journalism is associated with higher costs for both municipal and revenue bonds.
Newspapers are seeking new models for growth
Despite the bleak picture, there is some cause for optimism. In 2019, the Colorado Media Project came up with a slate of ideas on how to revive local journalism. They included:
· Empower communities to publicly fund local news sources
· Create a public-private partnership to bolster local media
· Help publications explore alternative methods of organization, such as becoming public benefit corporations, non-profits, or employee-owned entities
· Boost funding for libraries and higher education
· Encourage local government to make information as easily available as possible
A robust and free press is vital to democracy. Without it, voters will find it harder to understand the issues they’re confronted with, and civic engagement will suffer. Unfortunately, the first decades of the 21st century saw newspapers struggle with declining revenue and competition from other sources. This has led to an increasing number of locations where residents can’t access high-quality coverage of the things that matter most to them. Luckily, people have been sounding the alarm, and a host of organizations have come up with ways to save local journalism.