Is it just a random coincidence, a meaningless correlation, a spurious connection, that the number of statehouse reporters and the public’s trust in the media rise and fall together? I think not. In fact, these are both direct consequences of the demise of the print newspaper. The rise of the internet and online media has forced newspapers––the most trustworthy source of news––to cut newsroom staff and lay off reporters. Online outlets have shown no evidence that they can replace both the amount of local coverage and the quality of journalism that newspapers provided for decades. If newspapers, the preeminent source of local news and quality journalism, continue this seemingly irreversible decline, the entire media industry is in jeopardy. This leaves us with the daunting question: what will happen to American democracy without newspapers?
The importance of the press cannot be overstated. The press serves two crucial functions in a democracy: it keeps the citizenry informed, and it serves as a watchdog for the government. In order for voters to properly exercise their franchise, it is vital that they are informed on relevant issues and government policies. This is true at the national, state, and local level. Thomas Jefferson captures the centrality of the press within a democracy in saying, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to choose the latter.” An informed citizenry is so essential to a democracy that government can not exist without it.
In addition, the press serves to keep government honest and transparent. There are countless examples of journalists shedding light on government corruption––think of The New York Times’ takedown of the corrupt Tammany Hall in the 1890s or The Washington Post exposing Watergate. One of the reasons that a free press exists is to serve as a check on the three official branches of government. Without this fear of being exposed to the public, the government could descend into corruption and malfunction with little public knowledge. Matt Bunk, former managing editor at the Capitol Times in Arizona, succinctly sums up the importance of the Fourth Estate in saying, “More flashlights keep it brighter in the halls of the Legislature.” The more people there are keeping an eye on our elected officials, the less likely they are to get away with corruption.
Not all media outlets are created equally. Those who receive the most ad revenue are not necessarily those who produce the best journalism. For example, while digital and television make the most money from advertising, they do not employ the top investigative journalists. Instead, they feed off the journalism of those who try to prioritize journalism over profits: newspapers. Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Alex S. Jones conservatively estimates that 85% of all fact-based reporting comes from traditional print outlets However; print is dying, and online media is failing to fill the void that newspapers are leaving. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of print journalists fell by about 40,000. In that same span, digital-native outlets––which are supposed to be replacing print––have increased newsroom employment by only 6,000 people. Comedian John Oliver illustrates the necessity of print well: “Without newspapers around to cite, television news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around,” because “the media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.” Newspapers, the leading producers of investigative journalism and local coverage, are central to the media supply chain.
Unfortunately, online media has not followed in the rich history of journalistic integrity that newspapers have established throughout the years. After the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer, in which sensationalistic stories (published in order to increase newspaper sales) drove the US to war with Spain, the newspaper industry reformed itself, and publishers began to see the newspaper as a public trust rather than a business. This led to the ethos of journalistic integrity, and newspapers took it very seriously. Prioritizing integrity over profits is a difficult yet vital aspect of any news organization, but as more newspapers close, this code of ethics has become increasingly rare. Since competition in the online media world is so high, online outlets are forced to adhere to the “click economy” and publish sensationalized and partisan stories just to get clicks to stay alive. The main divergence between newspapers and online media is found in their respective responses to competition. Whereas newspapers live and die by their integrity, online media will sacrifice its integrity for ad revenue. The correlation between the rise of the internet and the decline of the public’s trust in the media is no accident; online outlets do not maintain the same journalistic integrity as their print counterparts.
Given the importance of newspapers to the press, and the importance of the press to our democracy, it is evident how the decline of the newspaper will affect our society. Given the rate of decline for many newspapers across the country, it would not be unreasonable to say that we could be living in a newspaper-free world in the near future. Without newspapers, there will be far less investigative journalism, coverage of local politics, and trustworthy news. Unless the Internet finds a way to fill the shoes of the newspaper industry that it killed, the decline of the newspaper will have a dramatically negative impact on our democracy.