The old newspaper riddle goes “What’s black and white and read all over?” It harkens back to the good ’ol days when newspapers really were “read all over.” In recent decades, the combined pressures of shrinking circulation and reduced advertising dollars have spelled the end for hundreds of newspapers and thousands of jobs.
That’s bad news for everybody, not just newspapers. The aftermath has left many corners of the country veritable “news deserts” lacking good local coverage.
Local journalism holds government accountable, as John Christie, co-founder of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, pointed out at a March 2 forum on the role of a free press organized by the League of Women Voters. Government bodies, from boards of selectmen to school committees to the state legislature, are bound to behave better when reporters attend meetings. How tax dollars are spent faces greater scrutiny. The impact of national issues and policies are explored on a local level, answering the question for readers: “What does this mean for me here, now?”
When that local news disappears, something else goes with it: common ground. Studies show greater partisanship in areas where newspapers have closed. People are more likely to vote along party lines. This may be because residents fill the hole with national news, which too often lacks nuance. “You’re either one of the bad guys or one of the good guys” in the national perspective, says Christie.
One of the great things about good local newspapers (of which there are still many) is that the pages may be black and white, but the content is not. Reporters don’t just cover a community, they live there. They are covering their neighbors and there’s a good chance that the subject of that less-than-flattering story will be in line behind them at the grocery store checkout. There’s a greater sense of personal accountability, less sensationalism and more humanity. Small-town reporters want to get it right and be fair to the parties involved.
Journalism, good journalism anyway, should not push an agenda or root for either side. It isn’t a call to action, public shaming or means to end. It should inform.
Readers, too, have a responsibility. In many ways, the audience gets the media it deserves. More likely to click on a juicy headline about the latest scandal than an in-depth story about the role poverty plays in incarceration rates? More scandal you shall have. Don’t want to pay for the news? You’ll find there’s a lot less real news to be had. “Opinions are cheap, facts are expensive,” says Christie. Investigative journalism is one of the first cuts made when newspapers hit hard financial times.
Being informed is part of being a good citizen. We need to seek out trustworthy, unbiased news sources and support them. We need to climb down off our soapboxes and up out of the ruts of our own opinions. We need to be receptive to new ideas and able to have a civil conversation with someone we disagree with. This country can’t afford to be more divisive. We’re all in this together.