iOS app Android app More

John W. Whitehead

John W. Whitehead

Posted April 13, 2009 | 10:16 AM (EST)

Why Local Newspapers Are the Basis of Democracy


"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."--Thomas Jefferson

With newspaper readership and circulation continuing to drop, more and more local newspapers are being forced out of business. However, as a recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates: "Many of those who say the closing of the local paper wouldn't make much, if any, difference in their communities note that there are other news sources available."

Young people, in particular, are more inclined to get their news from the internet. According to Pew, only 27% of those born after 1976 read newspapers, as opposed to 55% of those born prior to 1946. One person who believes the closure of the local paper would make no difference to civic life stated: "There are other forms of communication that are more important and easier to follow. I either go to television or turn on the radio in my car."

There are, however, serious problems with this line of thinking.

First, anyone who relies exclusively on television for knowledge of the world is making a serious mistake. TV news networks, having fallen prey to the demands of a celebrity-obsessed and entertainment-driven culture, provide viewers with what they want to see, rather than what is newsworthy. As a result, there tends to be little deviation between the networks as to what stories are covered. Hence, more time is spent titillating and entertaining viewers than educating them about pressing issues of concern.

Second, the emergence of the corporate media has ensured that a handful of corporations now control most of the media industry and, thus, the information dished out to the public by the national media. As one former Newsday reporter observed, "They serve their stockholders first, Wall Street second and somewhere far down the list comes service to newspaper readerships. All across America news organizations have been devoured by massive corporations, and allegiance to stockholders, the drive for higher share prices, and push for larger dividend returns trumps everything that the grunts in the newsrooms consider their missions."

Finally, there are very important things happening at the local level of government and community life that national newspapers, television news and online news do not--and cannot--cover. Local newspapers tell us what's going on in our local councils of government, in our schools, on our streets. As one journalist, remarking on the fact that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has ceased to exist as print newspaper, recently observed, "If we lose local newsrooms, we lose the watchdog power of the media. The most disheartening part of seeing the physical Seattle P-I close is that only 20 of its reporters went to the website. Not only is that a lot of lost jobs, but that represents a lot of important news contacts lost. That represents a lot of carefully cultivated sources gone. That represents a lot of shady, lazy, or dishonest politicians, corporations, and agencies that won't be watched as carefully as they used to be."

The basic mission of the media is to serve as a check on the government. That is why the freedom of the press is such an integral part of our First Amendment. Our founders understood the vital importance of the press in maintaining an educated citizenry and a transparent government. However, even freedom of the press will not make much of a difference if there are no local newspapers keeping watch over what's happening in our own back yards.

Local newspapers are the clarion call of democracy. "The power of the periodical press is second only to that of the people," wrote French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, one of the definitive works on early America. Tocqueville understood that governmental power flows up from our local towns, cities and counties--that's where democracy happens. Hence, the Constitution begins with those three beautiful words: "We, the people."

However, we've been deceived into believing that the most important governmental matters are housed in Washington, DC. In truth, the real government, the one that Abraham Lincoln spoke of as being a government of the people, by the people and for the people, is housed in small towns across this country. That's where democracy is being played out on an everyday basis.

Unfortunately, in subscribing to the false notion that national news are somehow more relevant than local news, we have mistakenly bought into the idea that what the talking heads in Washington, DC, have to say is more important than the dialogue taking place between average Americans and their representatives at the local level.

That's where we're failing in our democracy today. The founders did not establish a national government. Rather, America was intended to be a conglomeration of small governments, not one big government. In this way, the cities, towns and counties were to be the basis of American democracy. As Tocqueville wrote about early America, "every village forms a sort of republic accustomed to conduct its own affairs."

This idea is at the heart of federalism. The founders would have looked upon the huge national machine that exists in Washington, DC, today and its claim of total sovereignty as a totalitarian horror.

The truly literate and involved American should be reading the local newspaper. Weekly newspapers and the internet are also vital to maintaining an educated citizenry. We must ensure that they continue to flourish because they are all important resources for maintaining a healthy democracy.

And you need to do your part, as well. Subscribe to your local newspaper. Read it so you'll know what's happening in your community. And when you disagree, let your local politicians know--even if it is with a picket sign in hand.