Bad news for democracy

The collapsing newspaper industry undermines our democracy watchdog.

In 1923, 502 cities across the country had at least two newspapers. By 1930, that number dropped to 288. Today, there are fewer than two dozen cities with more than one newspaper. It is with grave concern that we learned last week that the Twin Cities may soon become one-paper towns, and we don’t mean one each.

According to the New York Post, the Star Tribune is near bankruptcy after failing to meet its debt obligations, and has hired a restructuring firm, Blackstone Group, perhaps to cut costs until whatever is left of the company can be sold. No one believed that the owners of the Star Tribune, Avista Capital Partners, intended on keeping the newspaper for a very long time when they purchased it last year. Avista is a private equity company, and they make their money by buying assets, conducting their own restructuring through massive layoffs and cost-cutting and then flipping companies for a quick profit. This one didn’t work out that way, and the company has been hemorrhaging revenue and readership even faster than Avista can slash its newsroom payroll. No one knows how this will play out, but a likely outcome is only one paper serving the Twin Cities.

Many industries are hurting right now. Why are newspapers special? They are the means by which we learn other industries are hurting. Without them, we wouldn’t know about problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or that the war in Iraq is going poorly. We wouldn’t know why gas prices are rising or about the foreclosure epidemic. The public needs to share a basic set of facts in order to determine what needs fixing and who we should elect to fix it. Local television news is more preoccupied with sports, weather and squirrels on water skis than nuanced, in-depth reporting and analysis, and 24-hour cable news by its nature bounces from one topic to another without putting news in perspective.

Some believe that if newspapers disappear, people will still be able to get their news from the Internet. But the economics of online-only news won’t work without a print counterpart bringing in enough revenue to pay for the coverage, and having information tucked away on the Internet is not an effective public bullhorn like a box on the sidewalk. We should be worried. Nothing less than the effectiveness of our democracy is at stake.