Buffeted by accusations of reporting “fake news” and biased political coverage, the journalism community is reeling from the mass shooting Thursday at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. Five people, including editor Rob Hiassen, brother of the novelist Carl Hiassen, were killed.
This was just the latest body blow to news-gatherers all over the country coming to grips with current trends, and they are not good.
In the last 15 years, circulation figures for local newspapers declined by about 30 percent while the number of government reporters covering local issues dropped by 35 percent, according to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review. Furthermore, studies have indicated that a lack or absence of watchdog coverage results in a less informed public and less disciplined elected officials, according to the article.
Delving deeper, a team of Columbia University finance professors set out to determine whether a decline in local coverage or the closing of community newspapers results in increased costs for local governments.
In the study model, local governments borrow money to finance school, hospital and road projects. Lenders will charge higher interest rates if they think the borrower is likely to default on the loan. The premise is that the absence of local coverage allows local governments to run unchecked, resulting in greater opportunities for mismanaging public funds and other unethical behavior.
Governments lacking local newspaper coverage would be viewed as riskier borrowers and wind up paying higher interest rates on funds borrowed for roads and other infrastructure, according to the article. The costs associated with the higher rates would be passed on to local taxpayers.
The study, which covered the years 1996 to 2015, found local government borrowing costs significantly increased for counties where a newspaper closed or slashed coverage resources. Overall, the study produced evidence that a lack of newspaper coverage will have serious financial consequences for local governments, according to the article.
Another significant finding is that local governments commit more abuses and mismanagement after a newspapers closes or cuts back on coverage. When the monitoring cat is away — or not looking — the government mice will play.
If all politics are local, then it holds true that all newspaper coverage is local. With that in mind, the job of the local newspaper is keeping local governments honest and holding local elected officials accountable for their choices and decisions, especially when it comes to taxpayer money.
Without a doubt, this has been the theme of Columbia-Greene Media’s recent editorial position on the proposed new Greene County Jail. We believe spending tens of millions on a jail that may not be necessary will saddle county taxpayers with debt for years to come.
One job of community newspapers is seeing this does not happen. That won’t stop the Greene County Legislature from going ahead with the project if it can muster enough votes, but it can show alternatives on the other side of the spectrum for the public to know and understand.
If the Columbia study reveals anything, it is that local newspaper coverage does provide some checks and balances to the cost of local governments, financially and ethically.