It has been nearly a decade since Tucson went from having two daily newspapers down to one, and the effect of that loss have been difficult for me to watch. As a former reporter who worked for the now-defunct Tucson Citizen, it pains me every day I see stories go uncovered.
The remaining daily – the Arizona Daily Star – does a passable job most days, and an incredible one on others, but I know my former beat – higher education – isn’t covered nearly as well as it was when there were two reporters in town focused solely on covering the University of Arizona. During those days, we fought tooth and nail to uncover stories about the largest public employer in a southern Arizona, wanting desperately to best each other. That competition benefited the public.
Both myself and the Star’s higher ed reporter had multiple stories published on our beat each week, something you simply don’t see anymore. Part of the reason is, like all newspapers since the great reaping of 2008-09, the Star doesn’t have the same number of reporters it once did. They would if they could, but newspapers have yet to find a sustainable business model that could result in more robust newsrooms.
When newspapers started giving away the news for free via digital papers, we drove a nail in our own coffin. Of course, we didn’t realize it at the time. We were simultaneously being starved of advertising by Craigslist and being pushed by “progress”, so we ran like lemmings toward the cliff of “post everything now!” But, as anyone will tell you, once you give something valuable away for free, it’s nearly impossible to get people to pay for it later.
Of course this was horrible for the more than 14,000 journalists laid off in 2008-09, but it turns out the public’s unwillingness to pay for news has more than a negative effect on voter turnout in local elections. It also has a negative economic effect on municipalities’ borrowing power.
As Shankar Vedantum reports this week on Hidden Brain, cities without newspapers pay in the long run. First, they pay because there less information and this results in a less informed electorate. Second, they pay because their taxes go up.
As Vendantum reports, researchers have found that the cost of loans issued to counties to do things like build roads or pay for police increase by about 0.1 percent each year there is no newspaper in town. This affect was even noticed in cities that went from two newspapers to one or slashed the staff at the one paper in town. That percentage may not seem like much, but if you have a $65 million loan, that 0.1 percent interest is $650,000 over the 10-year life of the loan. If a city has more than one loan – say something like the average of five – then you’re talking real money.
Why would lenders care about newspapers? Because apparently they aren’t clueless. They know that if no one is watching government, government just might be up to no good with the bank’s money. You’ll have to listen to the whole report here, but I can give a clear anecdote from after the Citizen closed to demonstrate the researchers’ point.
It was two years after the Citizen had closed, and I was walking across the UA campus from my office near Park Avenue toward the administration building. I was behind two administrators I’d know from my time as a reporter, and I was doing what all good reporters do: eavesdropping. The men didn’t know I was there and were discussing some potential consolidations that would bring extra money into one particular college. That money would allow certain employees to get enormous raises – including an administrative assistant who’s salary would double.
Now, if said assistant was going from $20K to $40K, perhaps it would be no big deal. But I knew the assistant’s salary, and it would be rising to more than $95K. For reference, at that time, an entry level professor salary was about $75K. The deans in that college would also see huge increases and new job titles would be created to justify enormous raises to other employees.
All that was bad enough, but what was most striking was one of the administrators saying to the other, “We need to do this now, when no one is watching. The Star doesn’t even have anyone on higher ed anymore.”
Most people I know – including a number of former journalists and, depressingly, some current journalists – don’t subscribe to a paper. Or they share subscriptions with friends, much like pirating your neighbor’s WI-fi. That lack of subscriptions translates into fewer reporters to tell us what is happening with our local government and public institutions.
Some people might argue that they don’t care about the death of newspapers because the news is so depressing. In fact, many of my students in the UA School of Journalism have that opinion and a sizable number of my relatives and friends agree. (Let us take a moment here to mourn the death of critical thinking.)
As Vendantum explains, newspapers aren’t consumer products. They are more like police departments — necessary, even life saving. So, do democracy a favor and go subscribe to one. Maybe if enough people do that we’ll get journalism off of life support and bring the watchdog back.