Our Free Press Needs Help – My Column from the Nashua Telegraph, June 19, 2013

From the Nashua Telegraph, June 19, 2013

Keeping the press alive important to keep government in check

Two weeks ago, the news broke that the Chicago Sun-Times had fired its entire staff of photographers. In the future, the newspaper will rely on a combination of freelancers and staff reporters to take pictures for the paper with their cellphones. It is only the latest step in the dumbing down of that great institution, the American newspaper. It makes me sad.

I confess to being an unabashed newspaper guy. I grew up near Saratoga, N.Y., but my parents were Bostonians. So I was raised a Boston sports fan. We got The Boston Globe in the mail a day late so we could follow the Boston teams. This may be hard to understand now that we’re in the Internet era, but I remember spreading that newspaper out on the living room floor every day and scrutinizing box scores and standings. That was how I learned about the previous day’s Red Sox game.

The photographs in those sports sections were huge for me, too. Baseball games were only televised Saturdays, and the game of the week in our region rarely involved the Red Sox. Black-and-white photos in the Globe provided me with just about all of the visual evidence I had as to what Yaz and Fred Lynn and Jim Rice actually looked like. Those photos, together with my memories from our annual trek to Fenway, comprised my vision of my favorite team. For me, a newspaper without great photos really isn’t a newspaper at all.

I know I am dating myself, and I know times have changed. But the decline of the news business in America isn’t just a personal issue that affects me. It affects all of us. Without reliable information, how can we meet our civic responsibilities? Without a strong, independent press, how can we keep the power in Washington in check? Unfortunately, we can’t. Without a healthy and vigorous and free press, we are at the mercy of rumor, innuendo and paid-for partisan hysteria.

Casting aside whatever libertarian underpinnings my own political philosophy might entail, I am now asking the question: Do we need to use more of our public assets to make sure that responsible journalism survives?

The founders were not believers in big government, but they realized that without an informed population, democracy would not be effective. Washington and Madison were deeply concerned with the challenge posed by getting news to all regions of such a large country. They made sure that our fledgling federal government heavily subsidized mailing costs to encourage its delivery to everyone. Support of that nature has in fact continued at the federal and state levels. But it is declining.

There remain tax breaks for the print, broadcast, cable and Internet industries. The large media companies have been able to use their financial muscle to lobby against the closing of some of these loopholes, but not all of them. Changes in the tax code have been particularly tough on small news organizations. Reductions in mail subsidies have killed much of the magazine industry. While the federal government continues to financially support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it does so under increasing pressure to do away with it.

Reductions in government subsidies are not the only things hurting the news business. The Internet and digital publishing also have contributed to its downfall. For example, local newspapers continue to be damaged by the transition of the legal notice business from print to a digital format. Those foreclosure and other statutory notices you see in The Telegraph are an important revenue source for the newspaper. But how much longer will publication in a physical newspaper be legally required when digital publication is so much cheaper and arguably just as effective as print?

Between the declining public support for journalism and the impact of the Internet and related technology, we don’t need Nostradamus to tell us where the industry is headed. It is headed down the tubes.

This reality should have the attention of responsible citizens in a democracy. It is questionable whether a democratic government can even function, let alone flourish, without a well-informed populace. Washington and Madison knew this. We can scream all we want about media bias and sensational journalism, but the burning question remains: if journalism continues to decline, where will we go for serious, balanced reporting of the news?

Many in the news business convincingly argue that if we had a higher quality of investigative journalism, the scandals that currently plague the Obama administration might have been nipped in the bud. Perhaps they would have been ferreted out even before substantive damage was done. The scandals could be viewed as symptomatic of across-the-board reductions in government accountability reporting. History proves that with nobody watching, the corruptive influence of power can overwhelm even good intentions. The news industry needs help, and we need to pressure the government to do more to insure that it survives.

I am not typically an advocate for increased government spending, particularly at the federal level. But this should be a priority item. Ensuring that citizens have access to quality news and information needs is vital. If the news industry fails, it will take a toll on our great republic. Washington and Madison could have told us so.