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Please, no tombstones for community newspapers

The decline and death of so many national publications, including newspapers, prompts me to submit the following.

Those who will suffer from the demise of print media are not publishers or advertisers.

Those who will suffer the most substantially are readers — consumers of news and opinion content of publications.

Historically, Napoleon Bonaparte, a 19th century French political and military leader, said it well. He wrote, “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations. Four hostile newspapers are to be feared more than a thousand bayonets.”

In the same century, a respected American newspaper, the Chicago Times, carried in 1861 the slogan, “It’s a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise Hell.”

Given such philosophical attitudes about the potent, influential watchdog role that print publications carry in society, it seems appropriate to share a portion of a recent commentary by Alex Pareene, who serves on “Salon” magazine’s editorial staff.

He writes: “The decline of newspapers has wreaked havoc on the politics of middle America. Newspaper circulation and revenue are in free fall, and even those newspapers that haven’t closed are decimating their staffs and reducing their coverage. In the dawning post-newspaper era, we all continue to get plenty of detailed coverage of national politics — including a daily avalanche of heated partisan commentary — but very little reporting on state and local governments.”

He continues: “With the watchdogs gone, it is quite easy for politicians and parties to get away with a lot. Lobbyists are drafting outrageous, industry-friendly or highly partisan legislation that state legislatures are ramming through verbatim. And why not? Most Americans have a better sense of what is going on in Syria than in their state capitol.

“We’ve also lost the referee role played by daily newspapers in their communities. Editors used to either ignore kooks and extremists, or treat them as such. However much this annoyed the rabid precincts of both left and right, it helped forge a grand, national moderate compromise that made our system work,” he concludes.

I agree with Pareene. But let’s hope his scenario does not occur locally. Instead, let us hope that our local communities support the critical and necessary watchdog role that community newspapers should take — to bark, snap, growl and when necessary, bite those who would take action or modify the legal rights of citizens without public notice or disclosure. Community newspapers have a responsibility to inform the public — with accuracy, balance and clarity — of any and all actions taken by governmental and quasi-governmental entities which have impact on the public. My definition, by the way, of entities would include virtually any governmental agency, board or organization which is supported by public money — government at the city, state and federal levels; schools, community colleges and state universities, public safety organizations, et al.

Such entities must be completely and fully open, transparent and accountable to the citizens who support them. The best avenue for such openness, transparency and accountability is community newspapers that demonstrate courage in demanding those characteristics from those entities that serve the public.

Community newspapers are society’s sentries, our watchdogs. Support them in their aggressive, sometimes abrasive quests for public disclosure.

Don’t order a tombstone for them.

— Ray Newton, retired social-behavioral scientist, journalist and professor-administrator emeritus, Northern Arizona University.

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