Editorials

Help newsrooms fulfill watchdog role — subscribe

The Legislative (left) and Insurance buildings are show at dusk at the Capitol in Olympia on Dec. 4, 2018. Once covered by as many as 30 reporters, the decline in the size of newspaper newsrooms has resulted in a smaller number of statehouse reporters. About six regularly cover the state government from Olympia bureaus, according to the Everett Herald.
The Legislative (left) and Insurance buildings are show at dusk at the Capitol in Olympia on Dec. 4, 2018. Once covered by as many as 30 reporters, the decline in the size of newspaper newsrooms has resulted in a smaller number of statehouse reporters. About six regularly cover the state government from Olympia bureaus, according to the Everett Herald. Ted S. Warren

(Last) Sunday, we volunteered some resolutions for state and federal lawmakers; and one for President Trump that he allow his Twitter feed to cool down.

Today, before you put a final underline to your own resolutions for 2019, we’d like to suggest one more for our readers: Subscribe. And urge your friends and family to do the same.

Like most other resolutions that offer a payoff in better health, finances or satisfaction with our daily lives, subscribing to a local newspaper — The Herald, for example — can make a difference to you and your community’s financial and political health, as recent research has shown.

The slow-motion decline in local newspapers has been painfully evident in recent years; the Pew Research Center reported subscription circulation — which, coupled with advertising, provides the bulk of a paper’s revenue — declining 27 percent between 2003 and 2014. At many papers that’s resulted in fewer reporters and editors on staff, a reduction in daily pages or days of publication, or — in too many cases — closures of newspapers.

And it’s meant fewer watchdogs looking out for the public good.

Nationwide, the decline is reflected in a 35 percent reduction in the number of reporters keeping tabs on state legislatures. Jerry Cornfield, who has been covering the Legislature and state government for The Herald since 2004, believes there were about 16 statehouse reporters from newspapers and other media outlets when he arrived, a decline from as many as 30 in the years before. Now, Cornfield is joined by reporters from only two other daily newspapers — The Seattle Times and the Spokesman-Review — the Associated Press and public radio.

“In terms of total reporters, if we all got together, it would be six people,” Cornfield said.

That’s enough for a good poker game, but not enough to keep the closest watch over a state government with 147 lawmakers, the governor’s office, the state Supreme Court, and more than 190 other state agencies, departments and commissions.

And some wonder why we make a big deal of the Legislature complying with the Public Records Act.

That loss also is evident in the coverage of local government, including the monitoring of city and county councils, school, utility and port districts and other public boards and agencies.

As recent research indicates, that’s having an effect not just on the number of stories you see about local and state government but on the costs to governments and taxpayers.

“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,” warns a 2011 report from the Federal Communications Commission.

As detailed in recent reports by the Columbia Journalism Review and National Public Radio’s “Hidden Brain” podcast, the absence of a watchdog can result in higher costs for local governments when they borrow money to finance projects.

The research, “Financing Dies in Darkness,” by researchers at Norte Dame and University of Illinois at Chicago, found that bond markets tend to increase borrowing costs when there isn’t a local newspaper to keep a watch for corruption or simply act as a check on government financial decisions. With state and local governments borrowing in the millions of dollars, even an increase of 0.1 percent puts additional strain on public coffers and taxpayers.

Looking at about 200 counties where newspapers had closed, the researcher found that fraction of a percent, for a city or county’s typical $65 million project, would add $65,000 each year in additional costs, or $650,000 over the course of a ten-year bond. That’s for one loan. Most cities and counties are paying on several such bonds.

Another study in the “Hidden Brain” report found that the addition or subtraction of a local newspaper can have a direct effect on voter participation. With no newspaper, the research found, voters have limited information on issues, candidates and elections themselves.

But, no, Facebook and television stations won’t pick up the slack when a community loses a newspaper; newspapers often are where television and other aggregators are getting the news they are “reporting.”

With due respect to Seattle’s TV news departments and the independent coverage they do produce, they rely heavily on the state’s newspapers for much of their coverage, as do national TV and online journalism outlets.

Rolling video of numerous TV reports referencing newspaper stories, John Oliver on his HBO series, “Last Week Tonight,” observes: “Without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around.”

Newspapers in general — and The Herald in particular — have our own resolutions to keep in providing reporting and commentary that is accurate, fair and engaging and lives up to the watchdog role that is expected of us.

Subscribers — however you choose to read: in print or digitally — are indispensable to supporting the work that we do.

Happy new year.

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