For as long as we’ve had democracy in this country, we’ve had newspapers.
It’s worth arguing that one can’t really exist without the other, that the lifeblood of democracy is well-informed citizens. And well-informed citizens don’t exist without media outlets that provide accurate, reliable, local information.
Without good information sources and well-informed citizens, tyrants and bad politicians pushing their version of reality are left unchecked.
Without well-informed citizens, in other words, democracy starts to die.
So it was disturbing to hear last week that the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, where my father took his first newspapering job in the 1960s, has decided to stop publishing a print edition two days a week, Monday and Tuesday, because of increasing paper costs.
The city will be lesser for it, I fear, as are many cities that have lost or are losing their voices.
A new study has, for the first time, documented the real, tangible cost to a community when a newspaper folds or is gutted, as has happened too much in Colorado, especially in Denver, in the past 20 years.
According to the new, as-yet-unpublished study, cities that have lost their newspapers experienced sharp increases in government costs because no one was scrutinizing local government deals and holding politicians accountable for those sweetheart deals.
“Following a newspaper closure, we find municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points in the long run,” according to the paper by Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame and Chang Lee and Dermot Murphy of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies, including higher likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated issues, and higher government wages, employees, and tax revenues.”
The very first example the researchers cite is the closure of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver nine years ago.
“Following the newspaper closure, the average (median) yield spread for newly issued local municipal bonds increased by 37.1 (5.3) basis points, despite the continued positive growth in population and per capita income in the area,” the researchers found. A municipal bond’s yield is basically the interest rate that cities pay for borrowing money in the bond market.
Since then, it’s just gotten worse. The remaining newspaper, The Denver Post, has been gutted by its hedge fund owners back East, with more than 50 journalists cut from its staff and dozens more fleeing for other news outlets. The Gazette’s news staff is now bigger than the Denver Post’s.
The survey covered about 1,596 newspapers serving 1,266 counties in the United States between 1996 and 2015. Gao said other Colorado papers covered in the study are the Aurora Sentinel, which moved from daily to weekly status in 2011; the Montrose County Morning Sun, which ceased publication in 1998; the Gunnison Country Times, which converted to a nondaily in 1996; and the Lamar Daily News, which became a nondaily in 2007.
And Gao said it’s not just the cost of local government that is changing in cities without good newspapers, it’s the quality as well.
A recent Federal Communications Commission report found that “. . . in many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability — more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems.”
Related studies show that cities with reduced local media coverage have less informed voters and lower voter turnouts, “removing the incentives of local politicians to work hard on behalf of their constituencies” according to the new paper.
Of course it’s not just “information” we need. God knows we have more of that than we can ever use.
The internet has given us access to more information than ever, but it is also providing a platform for more and more false and incomplete information. That makes newspapers and their standards and cultures of accountability more important now than ever. Newspaper reporters are required to correct their errors, and they get fired for patterns of inaccuracy and untruth. If only Facebook and Google and Washington, D.C., had such standards.
Alas, at the moment, we’re all over-entertained yet vastly uninformed. The costs of indulging in a constant diet of info-sugar — blogs, cat videos, social media posts, and slanted cable news — is giving us info-diabetes.
Somehow we all need to get back to the healthy info-diet newspapers and media outlets with high standards of accuracy and fact-checking can still provide.
Our democratic lives may depend on it.