Community newspapers are closing, often leaving behind “news deserts” where there is no consistent media coverage.
Since 2004, 1,800 American newspapers — 60 dailies and more than 1,700 weeklies — have folded. Washington state has not been immune — losing one daily and 16 weeklies. As many as half of the nation’s surviving dailies no longer will be in print by 2021, predicts Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
Print readership has declined 40 percent, and continues to drop. And half of the nation’s journalists have lost their jobs, leaving many surviving newsrooms with just a shadow staff covering their communities.
The newspaper industry is trying to shift to a digital world, but advertising dollars in that world have not been enough to support smaller community papers. Some newspapers have been saved by wealthy individuals or nonprofit investor groups who want to maintain a community news source, but these are the exceptions.
So does this matter?
The Columbia Basin Badger Club will discuss the situation and what alternatives there are to replace newspapers at its August 15 meeting. Speakers will be Joyce Terhaar, former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and board member of the American Society of News Editors, and Ken Robertson, former executive editor of the Tri-City Herald and current member of the Herald’s editorial board.
Polls have indicated a substantial majority of Americans, particularly younger adults, believe the death of their newspaper would not have a significant impact on their ability to keep up on community in-formation. Yet that polling also indicated local newspapers were the most relied-upon source of news on crime, taxes, local government, schools, community events and social services, among other things.
Newspapers have long served as community watchdogs, exposing corruption and informing the public about actions by their government or individuals that may affect their pocketbook. These functions are largely not duplicated by media elsewhere.
Here, the Tri-City Herald has a long tradition of exposing misconduct by private and public officials and pressing for community improvement. The paper has detailed Hanford’s toxic contamination and led the charge that has produced billions in federal cleanup dollars. The Herald also championed formation of our Washington State University branch campus, and exposed massive contamination of the Yakima River that led to actions that have cleaned the river significantly.
These are just a few of many examples of the Herald’s community watchdog role and leadership. The newspaper has also served as the community’s bulletin board, detailing entertainment opportunities, meetings at which taxing decisions are being made and reporting the routine “chicken dinner” news of service club gatherings, weddings and engagements and who made the school honor roll.
These roles are threatened, however, as declining advertising dollars and competition for readers’ attention continue to reduce readership and staffing. Like many surviving newspapers, the Herald is attempting to convert to digital delivery and seeking elusive revenue sources, even with greatly reduced staff, but it’s a daunting task.
If community newspapers die, what will take their place in informing the public and championing democracy? Does it matter? Come and find out.
Rick Larson is a former managing editor of the Tri-City Herald and a member of the Badger Club’s program committee.
If you go
When: 11:30 a.m., Thursday, Aug. 15
Where: Shilo Inn, 50 Comstock St., Richland
Cost: $25 for Badger Club members, $30 for nonmembers, $35 day of the event. Registration is required.
RSVP: Call 628-6011 or go to www.columbiabasinbadgers.com