By Les Lovoy
Since 2007, more than 250 newspapers have stopped publishing. As newspapers across the country fold or choose to publish less frequently, media experts are asking big questions. If newspapers scale back, will citizens know less, and even care less, about where they live? And does this affect how many people vote and get involved in their communities? Research says yes.
It’s early on a Wednesday morning. Guin Robinson sits in a booth at Bogue’s Restaurant. He sips his coffee, finishes his egg white omelet, and flips through The Birmingham News. Robinson says he reads the paper religiously…but he can’t start each morning with the paper like he used to do. In September 2012, The Birmingham News stopped publishing a daily newspaper. Now they publish three days a week. Robinson still misses the gap in his routine.
With no daily newspaper, Robinson says he feels less connected to his community, especially when it comes to politics. “My criticism and my concern for this community is [asking], ‘What about city hall? What about county government? What about state politics?’” Robinson says. “I’ve had to work to find out what is going on in Washington or Montgomery. You cannot tell me in any regard that’s not harming our community.”
For surviving newspapers, there’s a shift in what and how much they cover. In today’s new world order of media, they say studies have proven that, for the most part, a lot of folks would rather be entertained then informed.
The public nowadays may not be interested in every detail of every civic meeting, but, according to Lee Shaker, newspapers do affect community involvement. Shaker is a communications professor at Portland State University. He’s examined the death of The Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s print edition in 2009. “The obvious conclusion was that the closure of these two newspapers had a measurable and negative affect upon citizen civic engagement in their communities. So, in my research I found that civic engagement declined significantly on four of five indicators in Denver in 2008 and 2009 and two of five in Seattle between 2008 and 2009,” Shaker said. “Meanwhile when you look across the country, basically civic engagement was unchanged in pretty much every city in the sample over that same time period.”
He says the evidence is clear: Newspapers keep people involved in their communities and government. What happens next? There are no easy answers. And while fewer newspapers, or less frequent publication, has real impact, the numbers show many people don’t see a link, or even care. In 2009, The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press surveyed about 1,000 adults. Only 43 percent said losing their local newspapers would hurt civic life in their community “a lot.” A mere 33 percent said they would miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available.
But as hundreds of newspapers suffer slow and painful deaths and surviving newspapers cut staffs, questions remain. Who’s doing investigative reporting? Who are our watchdogs, keeping an eye on corporate power players and politicians?
“One thing I think we can say in confidence [is that] people in power who are not monitored are more likely to misbehave,” said Tom Rosenstell, executive director of the American Press Institute. “Misconduct is going to be encouraged by the lack of a reporter, someone who is able to connect the dots, who goes to these meetings and has the ability because of their standing, working for a news publication, to ask questions of people in power.”
The American Journalism Review recently reported the number of newspaper reporters in state capitals has declined by 32 percent in just the last six years. There were fewer full-time newspaper reporters in 44 state capitals. Some organizations are doing something about this disparity. One example is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. According to Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, his organization is teaching citizens how to be watchdog journalists with some bite.
No matter how much a newspaper —traditional or digital—may claim to be focused on informing the public, they need to be aware of one thing, according to Bernie Ackney, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Samford University. “As a reader, it’s hard for me to take the watchdog role of journalism real seriously when I see newspapers cut copy editors so much, and I read their articles and I see typo after typo,” he noted. “So, when there is a serious investigative journalism piece, why should I believe that if they can’t catch typos and misspellings in headlines and in articles?”
The concept of keeping a watchful eye on big business and government is one thing that separates professional journalists from bloggers, critics, and the kid down the street with a smart phone. True investigative reporting requires the resources and tenacity to wade through piles of data and get through to hard-to-reach individuals. But a lot rests on readers, too. Readers must be more interested in being informed than simply entertained.
(It should be noted that B-Metro magazine is a competitor of Birmingham magazine, published by The Birmingham News.)