Without newspaper scrutiny, politics in a vacuum not pretty

Scott Swanson

I read last week (in a newspaper) that the Daily Transcript of San Diego is about to close – after 130 years.

The Daily Transcript is a business newspaper, similar to Portland’s Daily Journal of Commerce. It wasn’t a major player in San Diego news, but it provided extensive coverage of local business, legal affairs and government. It also served as a training ground for journalists who went on to work at the Union-Tribune, the city’s dominant newspaper, and other publications.

Thankfully, we haven’t experienced many closures of newspapers with extensive histories in Oregon in recent years, athough the community weekly Sheridan Sun (which began in the 1880s) did shut down last year, reportedly a victim of the Great Recession, revisions of Oregon’s foreclosure laws (which led to a sharp decline in the number of foreclosures the newspaper published – and its revenue) and an inability to connect with younger readers.

Other than the Oregonian reducing its home-delivered printed edition to three days a week two years ago, the state’s newspapers have continued to publish, though staff reductions have taken a severe toll on the local news content of some, some of those locally.

At least they remain. In today’s world, there are a lot of options in terms of information exchange, but I’m not just speaking as a publisher when I suggest that a community without a newspaper is a community in trouble.

Nearly every year I attend the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual convention.

At this year’s convention, a couple of weeks ago, Willamette Week’s Brent Walth, who supervised the coverage of the stories that led to Gov. John Kitzhaber’s resignation earlier this year, spoke about investigative reporting and, especially, how smaller newspapers could and should be doing such.

I always come away from ONPA with ideas for stories that we could do, or services we could offer, and there are plenty of war stories circulated about challenges newspapers have in news coverage, competition for advertising – and readers’ attention – from other media, etc.

The convention also prompts me to think about what we’re doing here in Sweet Home and what it would take to do better. There are a lot of things we could do better, if we had the resources. In a perfect world, we’d have much more coverage of the county as it relates to Sweet Home-area residents, we’d have more news out of Salem that pertains to us, we’d have a dedicated sports reporter, we’d have more pages for all of this…

I mentioned staff cuts earlier and I’m not the only one who’s bemoaning the lack of personnel out there gathering news across the state.

Walth noted during his talk at ONPA that he recently took his young son into the capitol, where he once worked as a reporter.

“It was like a ghost town,” he said, referring to the shortage of reporters.

He took his son into the Capitol press room, where earthquake retrofitting was under way. There was no one in the room, he said and there was a giant crater in the concrete floor. The metaphor was inescapable.

A few reporters regularly cover the capitol. The Associated Press’ Portland bureau has an extension office in Salem. The Oregonian and the Eugene Register-Guard and some eastern Oregon newspapers have reporters who work in the capitol, particularly when the legislature is in session. Salem’s own daily newspaper, the Statesman-Journal, also has multiple staffers whose bylines show up on state government stories. Occasionally, Oregon Public Broadcasting does a story on activity in the capital.

But that’s about it, really, any more. And it’s a tragedy – for us, the residents of Sweet Home and the people of greater Oregon.

It puts some legs on that question I asked earlier: What would life be like without a community newspaper?

We see our responsibility as informing our readers, making them aware of people and events that impact their lives in some way, monitoring local government and generally doing what we can to contribute to the well-being and prosperity of our town and its neighbors. That’s the role of every community newspaper.

We all have a say in choosing our leaders. But to make intelligent choices regarding whom to select, it’s necessary to know something about the situations they’ll be dealing with. It also helps, if they are incumbents, to know something about how they’ve voted and conducted themselves during their previous term(s).

Try learning any of that without a newspaper. There’s the Internet, of course. You might find a website created by the candidate, or organizations for or against various people or issues on the ballot. They can be helpful, but they are certainly biased. We live in a world full of spin. Facebook and Twitter should be synonyms for “spin.”

In that environment, it’s difficult to really determine what’s happening out there, what’s true and what’s not.

In this age of social media, there’s a lot of talk about “citizen journalism” and we know that news can travel at blinding speeds through social networks. There are a lot of good things about this. For instance, cellphone videos and photos have contributed greatly to clarifying what actually has happened in some situations in which the above-mentioned “spin” could easily hoodwink the public and injustice or worse is, or could be, perpetuated.

But I don’t have to spend long on Facebook or Twitter to figure out that most of what’s on there is, frankly, pretty self-serving. In a news context, it’s not the kind of information you’d want to base your next stock purchase on, if you get my drift.

In my experience, Facebook posters generally don’t bother to correct errors. Newspapers do, because accuracy is paramount for us.

We’re aiming to tell as much of the whole story as we can possibly can in a world in which almost no one has a land line any more and useful phone books are practically extinct, in which HIPAA privacy rules and other restrictions have put a chill on the ability to report the kind of information that elicits community sympathy for the sick and injured, and in which government and corporate officials continually make power plays to curtail journalists’ efforts to report news.

Add to that one other, age-old problem: Journalists are people, subject to the same moments of weakness and lack of perfection common to humankind. We struggle with bias. We do make mistakes. But responsible journalists always try to set the record straight when errors are pointed out.

I came away from ONPA convinced once again that newspapers, particularly in small communities, don’t have to be circling the drain. But it takes investment in personnel who can faithfully chronicle the highs and lows of everyday life in the community, who can serve as watchdogs for a general public that has neither the time or inclination to stay on top of what public servants are doing, and who can otherwise shine lights in dark corners.

It takes support from the public we serve, which has been forthcoming here in Sweet Home. The advertisers you see on these pages are trying to communicate their own messages to readers; but they’re also, indirectly at least, supporting the news you read in these pages.

There’s no question that the world has changed, significantly, for newspapers. There’s no question that survival has become tougher – on all fronts. But there’s also no question about what would happen if there were no newspapers.

How many people do you know who would even attend a City Council or school board meeting? What do you think would eventually (and inevitably) happen if there were no reporters in the room when public officials – at any level – made decisions that impact you?

There’s not enough scrutiny as it is. We’re way too reliant on government and other organizations to provide us with information because we don’t have the resources to send our own investigators in to dig up the details ourselves. If newspapers continue to deteriorate, their watchdog function will decrease as well.

Newspapers owned by stockholders who have no interest in anything other than financial profits, who could care less about serving the public through quality journalism, will continue to founder. But I’m confident that today’s society still isn’t so preoccupied with entertainment and self-gratification and all the other allurements of our world that they won’t notice a significant difference if more newspapers die.

The watchdog function remains as vital to our society’s health as it ever has. The dogged and intelligent reporting that produced the Watergate revelations is the same stuff that uncovered the power plays and questionable behavior in Salem that led to our governor’s resignation.

You think that was an anomaly? It was simply dedicated journalists with their ears to the ground, checking out stories and details that didn’t seem to be lining up.

That’s why we need newspapers.