Threats to the survival of a free press seem much in the air these days, from the near daily online insults hurled from the White House podium to the lunatic who opened fire on an innocent group of news people in Annapolis, Md., on June 28.
But the greatest danger facing our shared freedom of the press and to journalists’ role in our democracy is not so much either of those factors, as important and tragic as both are.
Perhaps the greatest — and just as immediate — threat is the ongoing decline in the sheer numbers of those involved in the operating and staffing of newsrooms, for now felt most strongly in the “print” sector.
Here’s the most recent example: The owner of The New York Daily News — for decades the blue collar, saucy and salty tabloid voice of one of the planet’s largest cities — just days ago cut already weakened newsroom numbers from less than 100 to a reported 45 or so.
The paper’s Editor Jim Rich, and Managing Editor Kristen Lee, were bounced as part the mass layoff by an out of town entity that now owns the paper, Tronc — responsible for similarly slashing staffs in other newsrooms it controls, from Chicago to Los Angeles.
No doubt the those who bark “fake news” on command will clap their hands over the news. But as Rich so eloquently wrote hours before the Tronc travesty: “If you hate democracy and think local government should operate in the dark, then today is a good day for you.”
Recently, writer Ross Barkam of The Guardian noted that the U.S. Labor Department reports that since 2001, more than one half of all jobs in the news industry have disappeared, a decline from 411,800 to 173,709.
For newspapers in particular the situation is even more grim: a 2018 industry survey showed news department staffing nationwide is about 25,000 — for the first time less than the 27,000 employed in perennially understaffed local TV news operations. In the 1990s, surveys put those newsroom numbers at around 65,000.
Yes there is hope that online news operations will outgrow in size, scope, numbers, and the trivial fascinations that grab eyeballs if not intellects. But how long will that take? Will it ever happen?
It’s difficult to sustain a nation’s commitment to a “free press” if there’s little-to-no press around to operate freely and demonstrate its worth to an ever-skeptical public.
Do not fool yourself that our freedom of the press — and other freedoms of the First Amendment — are invulnerable. A tumble in the once virtually guaranteed revenue and the web disruption of previously limited access to news trashed in little more than a decade the economic model and news consumption habits of a century and more.
Combine a court decision (perhaps in the area of public figures and libel) with the White House’s moves on trade (raising the cost of newsprint) and mega media mergers approved by the government and “poof” — the vibrant, multifaceted news media envisioned by the nation’s founders as a “watchdog” on government turns into a lapdog with neither bark nor bite.
Yes, The New York Daily News newsroom cuts do not automatically mean it cannot replicate a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning investigation — with nonprofit partner ProPublica — of wrongs in the city’s eviction laws. But effectively tracking down evildoers and keeping a watchful eye in a city of 8.5 million with a staff of about 40 will be nearly impossible, even with the help of Superman — and yes, the Daily News was the model for the comic book’s “Daily Planet” where alter-ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent found a home.
We need not be mild-mannered or helpless in the face of the all too real challenges facing our watchdogs. But we do have to join in the fight to sustain a strong and free press — which, to acknowledge the factual critics of the press we have now, does not mean accepting shallow or inaccurate reporting, or opinionated talk as a substitute for journalism that matters.
In fact, there’s plenty of the latter around, but it gets caught up in the bluster and brimstone of those who see political benefit in the now meaningless blurts about “fake news” and such.
Focus on finding and supporting good journalism — which no doubt will at times tell you things you don’t want to hear, regardless of your political views — and ignore the rest.
If enough of us do that, we too “can save the day” for a free press — and help preserve democracy as well.
Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.