Monday, October 21, 2019

What Is A Newspaper?

What Is A Newspaper?"
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, October 21, 2019, p. A5
NOTE: The first entry in this blog post is the 584-word text, and the requested "sources," as presented to The Gazette's Editorial Board. As of this morning (Oct. 21) the print version (shortened for space and slightly modified) has not yet been posted on The Gazette's Web site. When it is available it will be copied and reproduced below, with a direct link to it here.

For the record, I am not employed by The Gazette, have no financial interest in the paper or its parent corporation, no family member working there, and am not paid for the columns I submit. My motive for writing this column, as my book, Columns of Democracy, makes clear is that I believe very strongly in the urgency of reestablishing democracy in America, and the preeminent role of local journalism in making that possible.

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.

He’s right. And it’s not just local. Authoritarians are disparaging and assassinating journalists. But there are multiple sources of their stories.

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, respected judges -– what I’ve called the Columns of Democracy.

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 one 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, with Time Machine articles and book, Ties to Our Past – plus papers from 1883. It educates and offers advice about our physical and financial wellness, cooking, cars, homes and gardens, “Things To Do Today” and Sunday’s “What’s Trending on the” [Photo credit: Tony Webster, January 25, 2016]

But wait, there’s more! 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 Web site with its Menu, More Links, Our Sites, and Additional Links.

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 symposium. It’s generous support of dozens of organizations and causes -– and more than this space can hold. [Photo: Pints & Politics event before packed house at Theater Cedar Rapids, first evening of 2019 Iowa Ideas symposium, Oct. 3, 2019. From stage right: Erin Jordan, Todd Dorman, James Lynch, Lyz Lenz, Adam Sullivan. Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson]

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. If there are things you like about our part of Iowa thank The Gazette.

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. Do your part.
Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City, former media law professor and FCC commissioner, is the author of Columns of Democracy." Comments:

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[; Committee to Protect Journalists (“1354 Journalists Killed between 1992 and 2019/Motive Confirmed”) (“250 Journalists Imprisoned in 2018”)

Amanda Erickson, “2018 Has Been a Brutal Year for Journalists, and It Keeps Getting Worse,” The Washington Post, Oct. 19, 2018,

RWB World Press Freedom Index,]

Newspaper economics. Derek Thompson, “The Print Apocalypse and How to Survive It,” The Atlantic, Nov. 3, 2016,

The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts; Daily Papers That Were Closed, Merged, or Shifted to Weeklies,

Newspapers closed. Douglas A. McIntyre, “Over 2000 American Newspapers Have Closed in Past 15 Years,” 24/7 Wall St., July 23, 2019, (“Abernathy told 24/7 Wall St. that, “It appears at this stage that we’ve lost approximately 2,100 papers, all but 70 of which are weeklies, since 2004.” The industry implosion has left almost half of the counties in America (1,449) with only one newspaper, which is usually a weekly. As of the most recent count, 171 counties do not have a paper at all.”)

Thomas Jefferson quote. Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington," January 16, 1787, Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 11:48-49 (emphasis supplied).

Not used: Indeed the media, sometimes called the fourth branch of government, is the only industry recognized and protected by our Constitution (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom … of the press”).

Subscribers. NY Times “new goal of 10 million subscriptions by 2025, up from 4.3 million today. Nearly 80 percent of those 2018 subscribers are digital.” AP New York Times subscriber numbers are skyrocketing in the Trump age, Over 265,000 digital subscriptions were added in the last three months of 2018,” Feb. 6, 2019

Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2019 ranking of 180 countries finds only 24% “good” or “satisfactory.” The U.S. fell to 48th.

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