An investment in democracy
September 2, 2019
By holding this newspaper in your hands you're supporting democracy. Democracy doesn't work without an informed citizenry and informed votes.
It's easy to overlook what a newspaper brings to a community, but thousands of communities across the country have discovered that when it's gone, the cost is high. A study by Paul Gao, an associate professor of finance at the University of Notre Dame, and others, found that there is a direct and devastating correlation to the costs borne by taxpayers in communities that lose their public watchdog.
A good watchdog barks when there's activity in the yard. Sometimes it's just the neighbor trying to sneak zucchini on your porch. Other times it's lesser criminal activity. But the point is, you get the news – “Hey, there's something happening here!” – and you decide if you need to react.
Newspapers have lost advertising to online platforms because it's theoretically cheap or even free. Ah, but remember the adage about free lunches? What does it cost you when your property taxes go up, when local governments, with no feedback from engaged citizens, make decisions that not only impact your pocketbook, but your life?
Wind towers, oilfields, coal mines, pipelines, feedlots, flood control, road construction, hospital struggles, emergency services, and school expansions or consolidations, are just a few of the things that can affect our lives on the prairie positively or negatively, but if you don't have the facts, how do expect to face them?
Years ago, when I was the publisher of the Adams County Record in Hettinger, I was confronted by a lady at the drug store newsstand because we'd just raised the price of the paper to 75 cents. “You know, USA Today is still only 50 cents,” she sniffed.
“Well,” I said, “When they start covering the school board, city council and county commission, you'll have a helluva deal, won't you?”
If citizens forget the critical role a newspaper plays in the community, so do some elected officials who make the decisions. There isn't a newspaper carrying this column that hasn't had a reporter at a public meeting told, “Don't put that in the paper.”
Here's my answer, and I've given it in various shapes and forms over the years: “I'm not here as your public relations firm. I'm here in this public meeting representing the taxpayers who pay your salaries, who will be affected by the decisions you make in this room.”
That's not an indictment of our public servants. Most of them are good people doing thankless jobs. God bless 'em. However, sometimes it turns into an insular Good Old Boys Club. Us vs. Them. It happens at every level of government. There are so many Good Fellas in Bismarck, I swear I spotted Ray Liotta there. Who calls them out when they've had an illegal meeting or there are conflicts of interest? Newspaper watchdogs. Politicians and clowns all perform better under a spotlight.
Knowledge is power. About 85% of those surveyed in North Dakota said they read the official minutes. Minutes provide the official record, the minutia. Reporters provide highlights, insight and context. When meetings are broadcast, you hear inflection and tone that isn't easily translated in print. More information serves our democracy, but in rural America, there's often just one credible news gatherer—the newspaper.
Every week I'm reminded of our role as community historians when people come through the door to research an obituary or a news story. We're recording the wins, the losses, the triumphs and the tragedy. Even those who post achievements on the internet want them in the newspaper. It's a matter of validation and credibility.
Criticism of the press has always been with us and is often warranted, but anyone who calls professional journalists purveyors of fake news must feel threatened by the facts. And if you don't like the opinion on the editorial page, write your own. It's your page, too.
Sure, we make mistakes and when alerted to them, correct them. To what purpose would a newspaper intentionally provide false news reporting? What's the end game? The conspiracy falls apart right there. Understand history. Killing the messenger is the first step to authoritarianism. A population without information is powerless. See North Korea. See Russia.
Buy a subscription. Renew one. They make great gifts for your kids and grandkids. (Many papers have online additions.) It's an investment in democracy. In freedom. Use it or lose it.
There's a reason it's the First Amendment. Your newspaper is defending your democracy.