Next week is Sunshine Week, an event that heralds open government and open records. But it will be much darker in Seattle, because it looks as if the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will no longer be publishing a newspaper. Hearst Publications was unable to find a buyer and the purchasing deadline has passed.
Last year, a survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University reported that 75 percent of American adults view the federal government as secretive, up from 62 percent in 2006. Yet, as public concern grows, the number of newspapers that battle secrecy continues to dwindle. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver closed last month. Hearst is also talking about closing the San Francisco Chronicle. It probably won’t be the last major newspaper to fold.
The explosion of the Internet and the inability of newspapers to capture enough money from this information revolution have imperiled the entire newspaper industry. The challenge is far more daunting than previous ones posed by radio and television.
So as newspapers die, it’s worth considering the effects on society. Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?
In Spokane, who would have battled the school district to learn more about the peanut allergy death of a student and the district’s policies? Who would have forced into the open the video showing the police confrontation with Otto Zehm? Who would have unearthed the activities of a mayor that led to his recall?
In Seattle, who would have revealed the inhumane smuggling of Chinese immigrants into the country in shipping containers?
In Portland, who would have shined a light on the pattern of abuse and neglect inside an overcrowded state mental hospital?
And who would have broken the Watergate scandal?
The number of Web sites and bloggers has ballooned. Some of them work at covering national and international issues, but few, if any, cover school boards, city councils, county governments, police departments, courts and state legislatures. Even if they did, they would have difficulty reaching a broad audience, and unless the purveyors are independently wealthy, they wouldn’t be able to sustain drawn-out legal battles for public information.
To borrow business parlance, newspapers have not been able to monetize the Internet. The New York Times’ Web site gets an astounding 19.5 million unique visits a month, but the old ink-on-paper product still brings in most of the cash. Newspapers may be able to charge a limited audience for online information, but who will inform the masses?
The demise of newspapers goes beyond the sadness of journalists losing their jobs. It darkens democracy.