Guest Columnist

What is a newspaper?

Newspapers enter the folder after being printed at the Colorweb press on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2007.



(LIZ MARTIN/THE GAZETTE)
Newspapers enter the folder after being printed at the Colorweb press on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2007. (LIZ MARTIN/THE GAZETTE)

Gazette columnist Adam Sullivan’s “America Needs Local Newspapers” (Oct. 11), put forward a well-written case for local news in general and Iowa’s Carroll Times Herald and Quad-City Times in particular. Both papers had substantial costs of defending themselves in trials they ultimately won.

It’s local news that’s disappearing. National print newspaper ad revenue dropped from $60 billion to $20 billion in 15 years. Half our 3,000 counties have only one newspaper, 171 have none; 2,100 papers closed.

So what? Democracies die from a thousand cuts to their supporting institutions: universal public education; fair, inclusive elections; nonpartisan and respected judges.

And the greatest of these? An independent, respected journalism. Says who? Says Thomas Jefferson: “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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

“Receive those papers?” Little more than 1 percent of Americans subscribe to the New York Times, or Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal. “Capable of reading them?” Mandatory public education was originally to provide us the civic virtues for active participation in democracy. No longer.

The Gazette is preeminent among our local democratic institutions, serving all of them. Its investigative reporters are our communities’ “inspectors general.” It informs us about our local businesses; schools, colleges and universities; courts, city councils, county supervisors, legislators — plus presidential candidates. It monitors our hospitals, public roads, bridges, parks and libraries. It tracks our safety, from natural disasters to the law breakers and enforcers. It hears our complaints and publishes our letters. It is our historian and librarian. It educates and offers advice about our physical and financial wellness, cooking, cars, homes and gardens.

Examine carefully each story, and reporter’s name, in one day’s hard copy or Green Gazette. Leaf through a week’s papers, or stroll through the vast website.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The Gazette is magazines, like Iowa Ideas and HER, special supplements like Hoopla and quarterly Brain Teasers. It is editorial board meetings, Pints and Politics, business breakfasts, and Iowa Ideas conference. It’s generous support of dozens of organizations and causes — and more than its space can hold.

Forty-five years ago, as a congressional primary candidate, I could look around an Iowa town and guess the quality of its newspaper. It’s still true.

But it needs our support more than our thanks. Unlike other public institutions, it’s not only protected from government interference it also gets no government support.

The Gazette cannot do it alone. It can print newspapers, but it can’t print money. It needs advertising dollars from an engaged business community. It and our democracy need more of us to subscribe — even if only digitally.

It is we who need to be engaged in our communities, we who need to be informed about our local challenges and opportunities, we who need to financially support, read and act on the local news in this paper.

Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City is a former media law professor, FCC commissioner and is the author of “Columns of Democracy.” Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.