Protecting Local Journalism and Our Democracy

By Luisa Guaracao, January 22, 2019

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Panel on Local Journalism and Democracy hosted by Burness at Busboys & Poets on November 29, 2018. Guest speakers included Nicco Mele, Director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and Dave Krieger, former editorial page editor of the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera.

Local journalism is in trouble. In fact, even coal mining isn’t losing jobs as fast as the newspaper industry. From 2000 to 2014, 19,000  journalists lost their jobs. That’s the same number of jobs the steel industry lost in the years between 1991 and 2018. And there’s a real consequence. People aren’t getting the information they need to participate in our democracy. And I can attest to that.

I voted last year for the first time during the midterms. I remember getting my absentee ballot in the mail and being extremely excited — until I opened it and saw what seemed to be a never-ending list of candidates and constitutional amendments. After skimming through it, I quickly realized that I knew little to nothing about the majority of the candidates on my ballot.

Sure, I had heard about the candidates running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and Governor in my state, but I didn’t know a thing about the people running for chief financial officer, commissioner of agriculture, circuit judges or attorney general in my district.

And don’t even get me started with the constitutional amendments. There were more than 10 on my ballot, and I was convinced that they weren’t written in English. Take constitutional amendment number 1 for example, otherwise known as “Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption.” As a 23-year-old who does not own any property, I had no idea what this meant or what the implications would be for me down the line when I’ll hopefully be ready to buy a house. But luckily, the Miami Herald was able to break it down for me, and I was able to make an informed decision.

As for the candidates I had never heard of, I asked my mom about a few, and once I realized she was just as clueless as me, I turned to the Tampa Bay Times. They had an awesome resource called “Know Your Candidate,” that featured a Q&A with almost every candidate on my ballot. I say “almost” because there were a handful of candidates who did not submit answers, and my guess is that there weren’t enough reporters at the paper to follow up with each of them.

I can’t say for sure if that’s what happened, but one thing I can say with confidence is that there are fewer journalists writing fewer stories about state legislatures, leaving us less informed about local policies and politics. That’s according to a survey conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which found that of the 500 reporters surveyed, 54 percent said their paper devoted less space to covering the legislature than 10 years ago.

If it wasn’t for my local papers, I would’ve left over 75 percent of my ballot blank. That’s not okay. We need journalists because without them we’re uninformed and ill-prepared to participate in our democracy. It’s simple. We can’t govern ourselves if we don’t know what’s going on.

And, it’s not just about elections.  Local media — print, online and broadcast — tell us about so much that matters in our lives. Stories about immigration, the local economy, criminal justice, homelessness, health care and a thousand other topics.  

So, what can you and I do? We can support our local media to start. Yes, it’s one more thing to pay for. But if you pay for a Netflix or Amazon subscription, you can afford a newspaper subscription. On the balance sheet of life, I’ll make the case that basic civic participation trumps our favorite movies. (Though we can find room for both!)

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