Saturday, August 11, 2018

The death of the small town newspaper

A couple of weeks ago, The Robesonian, the local paper in my home county of Robeson County, North Carolina announced that they were cutting the colorized comics from their Sunday paper. In making their decision, they blamed President Donald Trump's tariffs on Canadian newsprint. The new tariffs have been a particularly large burden on newspapers around the country, prompting a bipartisan response in Congress. Last week, the Trump Administration even announced a small reduction in the tariff. Many small town papers, which already operate on razor thin margins, are being forced to cut back or restructure in order to maintain financial solvency.

President Trump's tariffs threaten to accelerate what has already been a growing trend, the death of the small town newspaper. With the rise of the internet and the increased nationalization of our political culture, smaller news outlets find themselves in a fight to maintain relevance. The value of the small town newspaper cannot be understated. In communities that are often far from population centers, it is often the only source of information about the inner workings of local government and the only outlet that can expose corruption and malfeasance. It is also the only outlet that can spotlight local political candidates, helping to give a voice to people who may not be well known in the community and may struggle to get their message out otherwise.

"Democracy Dies In the Darkness" is not just the slogan for The Washington Post, it can often be the reality in many rural communities. The sad reality is that the local newspaper is often the only source of information on decisions made and actions taken by municipal governments. For example, the small town newspaper is often the only source for information on town meetings. The journalist who attends and documents those meetings is not only able to report on the proceedings of the meetings but can often ask clarifying questions of local officials in order to get more insight into the decisions of local lawmakers. Through this process, the local community becomes better informed about their local government and the reasons behind the decisions that are made.

Local newspapers also work to expose local corruption. In my home county, The Robesonian has frequently exposed corruption on the Robeson County Board of Commissioners. In 2012, they highlighted that, despite Robeson County being among the poorest counties in the entire country, its commissioners were the fourth highest paid in North Carolina. In June of this year, they highlighted that the County had deliberately failed to publish the names of relatives of the county commissioners in a delinquent tax posting. Without a local newspaper, it is unlikely that either of these stories (and others that I am not mentioning) would have ever been uncovered.

While the argument can be made that physical print newspapers are an outdated mode of communication and that these news outlets could survive if they moved online, I find this argument weak. As Professor Pruitt noted in 2012, the move to online publishing would disproportionately hurt the rural and the poor, who are less likely to have access to the internet. By moving to an online-only system, newspapers would be unnecessarily shutting out large portions of their populations.

When we think about the issues that this blog often discusses, namely the growing resource gap between rural and urban communities, it is important that we remember that the local newspaper is the vehicle through which we hold public officials accountable and make sure that they are fighting to bridge this gap. The local newspaper helps to facilitate an informed electorate, who can apply pressure to elected officials to act in a way that benefits the public at large. Without the local paper, local officials may find themselves free to act with limited accountability to voters. In this scenario, democracy may indeed die in darkness.

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