Former Washington Post publisher Phil Graham said newspapers provide “the first rough draft of history.”
When major events occur, journalists are among the first on the scene providing eyewitness accounts. The 2022 war in Ukraine provides a haunting example of the benefit journalists provide by reporting facts as history unfolds. Through written stories, photos, audio accounts, and videos, journalists are capturing the horrors of what war looks like, while broadcasting it for the world to see in real time.
The practice of American journalists reporting from a war became common place during the American Civil War. Pictures from the battlefield along with eyewitness accounts were front and center in many 19th century newspapers. The access of journalists to the battlefields allowed readers to witness the true scope of war.
The trend of embedded reporters on the front lines continued through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and countless other conflicts. As the technology journalists used in the field changed, so did the type of information they captured and the speed in which they delivered it.
While the wars mentioned above were already in the rear-view mirror by the time I was born, I can still vividly remember the “Boys of Baghdad,” Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman broadcasting live on CNN when the first missiles of Operation Desert Storm were fired. For the first time, Americans were seeing live video in the middle of a war zone.
While I always enjoyed writing, I caught the journalism bug in seventh grade. As an aspiring journalist in middle and high school, I listened to historic broadcasts from Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather and others as they explained what they were witnessing on various battlefields. I hung on every word from those broadcasts and transcripts and thought how great it was that reporters were willing to risk their lives in order to cover a story.
Those reports from Baghdad, as well as the reports the preceded it, and the ones that have followed in the years since, show the value journalists provide in times of war. Journalist also play a vital role in times of peace. Unfortunately, in many communities, journalists work to remain the ones writing that first draft of history, despite growing cracks in the Teflon armor worn by the fourth estate.
Journalists are facing increasing attacks from fomented bases of uninformed people calling anything that does not fit their narrow world view to be “fake news” reported by “enemies of the people.”
Some of this ire from the public can be traced back to the words of a single man throwing red trucker hats into a crowd with the zeal of a trainer throwing raw chicken into a pool of alligators just to watch the chaos as the reptiles fight each other for every scrap of meat. Another source of the growing disconnect between journalists and the public can be traced to the rise of news deserts in communities across the country.
The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina defines a news desert as, “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”
Although the journalistic standard of freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, a lack of freedom from debt is crushing many newspapers. Revenue from advertising and subscribers form the lifeblood of many local newspapers. Increased competition from social media and other digital sources shrinks that revenue stream as people find news for free from sources other than the local newspaper.
As the resources needed to sustain a thriving newspaper dry up, a news desert is formed. In a news desert, communities are forced to rely on less credible news sources such as social media posts from anonymous sources, or worse still, foreign actors trying to sow division.
This is not to say that all social media is bad, or that all local newspapers are 100 percent fair and balanced. However, when all someone consumes is information from social media, the recipe for a rise in misinformation and partisan division is formed.
The continued reduction of credible news would not only impact the journalists who would lose their jobs. The loss of credible news sources would have lasting impacts on the people who rely on newspapers as a means to gain a better understanding of their place in the world.
Having covered many school board and city council meetings in my day, the thought of having those meetings take place without a journalist in the room where it happened to bring government activity to light is a very troubling thought. Democratic participation suffers without credible news outlets within communities.
As a practicing journalist with over 30 years of experience, the subject of news deserts is something I follow with growing concern. Of the 10 newspapers I have worked for, only two remain in operation. The two surviving newspapers have enacted extreme cost cutting measures by relocating to smaller offices, reducing the number of days they print, reducing the width and number of pages of the printed paper, laying off the majority of their staff, and moving their printing operations to remote sites shared with other publications.
According to some published reports, the number of newsroom employees declined 51 percent between 2008 and 2019, going from around 71,000 newsroom staff to 35,000. Additionally, 1,800 communities have become news deserts during that time frame.
I remain confident journalism as a profession will remain in some form even if all of the newspapers in the world cease operating. However, the rapid rate of newspaper closings is a troubling trend that must be addressed.
If local journalism fails, the news landscape will likely become even more elite and globally focused. The issues of local concern will fester in the darkness. The haves, like the Washington Post and New York Times will continue to thrive and attract a highly engaged and educated readership. The have nots, will watch their news sources continue to whither and ultimately die.
With fewer newspapers covering communities, citizens will be forced to rely on less reputable news sources on social media. If that happens, the tide of misinformation will turn into a tsunami flooding the space where facts once stood. Claiming as some do, that deeply partisan news is better than no news, is a dangerous path to take. That line of thinking will only lead to further divisions along political and socioeconomical lines as people only read and listen to items they agree with.
The old saying of you get what you pay for rings true, if people decide to pay nothing for local news, then they should be prepared for a scenario where local news ceases to exist. If that happens, there is one less guard speaking truth to power and informing the public of the comings and goings within their communities. Worse still, no one will be around to capture history’s first rough draft.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it is time reread some of my Edward R. Murrow books. And to all of the journalists out there battling against the tide of news deserts, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “good night and good luck.”
Editor’s Note: A state by state breakdown of news deserts and other local journalism facts being tracked by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media is located at https://www.usnewsdeserts.com/
Copyright 2022 R. Anderson