The Only Game In Town: Why Every Community Needs Newspapers

New Year’s Day, Eric Johnston and Mark Vasché published the Modesto Bee’s annual pledge to Bee readers. Johnston and Vasché pledged to, “adhere to the highest journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness, impartiality and independence,” and added the plea, “that readers—and we ourselves—be respectful of people of differing viewpoints.”

Johnston and Vasché’s words are best understood within the context of a remarkably candid speech made by Bee publisher James B. McClatchy at the Bee’s 25-year Club’s annual meeting in 2002 (the Bee and a host of other newspapers are owned by McClatchy Newspapers; James B. McClatchy died in 2006).

In response to the self-posed question, “Why do newspapers exist,” McClatchy said, “The main responses are, one, to make money and have influence in a community; and two, to serve the public.” Note that McClatchy conflated making money and having influence into one purpose. He then said, “Commercial success is the crucial companion to all this, making it possible for us to fulfill our responsibilities.”

While making money and having influence don’t necessarily conflict with serving the public, it’s not difficult to imagine cases when these interests collide. One such example is population growth. While a newspaper profits from growth, growth doesn’t necessarily serve the public; some studies have shown that growth, especially in the form of sprawl, actually places a burden on Central Valley residents in the form of increased costs for infrastructure and services that growth does not pay for. And a newspaper’s “commercial success” depends not only on the usual sources of advertising revenue—car dealers, department stores and specialty stores—but especially on real estate ads. Just take a look at the Sunday real estate section sometime and imagine the dollars it represents to the local paper.

Very often, the political and commercial interests of newspapers and news magazines are obvious and simply taken for granted. Conservatives routinely debunk any news from the New York Times, liberals refer to “Faux News,” and Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of media is rarely seen as a venture in the public interest except by supporters of Murdoch’s brand of politics.

And while it is a lesser known aspect of our early history, newspapers have almost always reflected political interests. Thomas Jefferson hired Phillip Freneau to publish a newspaper critical of George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin Bache’s American Aurora was famous for its scathing political commentary. It’s hard to imagine our Founding Fathers at one another’s throats, but Jefferson and Washington had bitter differences, as did Jefferson and Hamilton. Early on, those differences got expressed via newspapers with competing viewpoints that were proudly partisan. Jeff Pasley’s, The Tyranny of Printers, documents the history of these early newspapers in fascinating detail.

Absent newspapers with competing viewpoints, citizens receive news shaped by one set of pressures for profit and influence. And when one newspaper is the only game in town, it’s easy to forget John Stuart Mill’s observation that,

Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.

When there is one newspaper, there is one set of rules, one arbiter of “truth,” one judge of what is or is not “impartial” or “civil.” Thus, the Bee can sermonize on civility and print a letter comparing Carmen Sabatino to a “proverbial pile of dog poop.” It can suppress a column by a Community Columnist while defending freedom of speech. It can justify any number of self-serving policies because freedom and civility and impartiality are abstractions into which the Bee (or anyone or institution) can pour ad hoc meanings convenient to its purposes. And, as James McClatchy professed, making money and having influence are the default reasons for having a newspaper. Bottom line: Politics and the profit motive can have distorting effects on the news.

None of this means the Bee is wrong, or even misguided. It’s perfectly reasonable to pursue influence and profit. However, it does not serve the public to have one and only one arbiter of freedom, civility and impartiality. By definition, one entity is not impartial, especially when its owner justifies its very existence in terms of having influence and making money.

And that’s why every community needs newspapers.

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