Journalism is key in functioning democracy

“Thanks for your support, we need you and your friends.”

That was the headline atop a column written by veteran Editor Art Cullen at Iowa’s Storm Lake Times appearing in a PBS documentary I watched last week.

Cullen knows the challenges of being a small, mid-America newspaper editor.

Like most journalists I know, the lanky, white-haired senior citizen isn’t afraid to speak his mind about stories that affect us, what he believes readers want to know and about the future of local journalism in America.

Cullen, 63, has become a bit of a hero in my business. He still fights to salvage the future of his 3,000-circulation print product that provides community news on things like city council and, in his words, “who is getting married and buried.”

Somehow, while doing that with his tiny staff, he also managed in 2017 to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Now, Cullen and his family-run newspaper are the focus of a PBS documentary examining the future of local journalism.

In Cullen’s words, the best journalism builds communities. I couldn’t agree more.

We, too, fill our pages with community news. We spend much effort and space on obituaries. Our reporters attend many meetings of city councils, boards of education and township trustees. We stand on sidelines of high school football games with our notepads and cameras, and of course, we look for interesting local feature stories to share.

In Cullen’s words, we need to cover all this stuff “and still be old fashioned enough to believe in the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment.”

Sadly, that isn’t always enough to please everyone. In Iowa, Cullen struggles with similar issues.

“It appears people aren’t supporting journalism like they once did,” he said. “Now people want to get their news for free because, apparently, looking at their breakfast on Facebook is all the information they need to live as an informed voter in America. And that’s not how you sustain a democracy. You need people who can talk about facts and deal in facts. That’s what we’re here for. But people are saying, ‘Oh well, that’s not worth a dollar.'”

Thousands of American communities now are considered “news deserts” — the ominous name given to communities without local newspapers to expose local government corruption or cover high school football on Friday nights.

Here, in our Mahoning Valley, we became acquainted with the term because just a few years ago, Youngstown risked going down that path when The Vindicator, under its previous ownership, teetered on the brink of closure. The Tribune Chronicle, of course, took over publication, and now, both The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle are alive and well.

Today, with our two daily newspapers coupled with multiple broadcast TV news stations, a local business publication, a web publication and other smaller newsprint mediums, our Valley, at least for the foreseeable future, is far from a “news desert.”

Not every region in our nation and around the world is as fortunate.

In the past 15 years, the U.S. has lost more than 2,000 newspapers — 1 in 4 — leaving the communities they once covered bereft of the watchdog reporting that keeps elected officials looking over their shoulders or the type of positive publicity that leaves parents beaming with pride.

Journalism training center and think tank Poynter Institute reported more than 90 newsrooms closed during the pandemic alone for the same reason that countless other small businesses didn’t survive — loss of business and profit. Now, approximately 65 million Americans live in news deserts, according to the documentary.

So, just how long will a community support journalism? To paraphrase Cullen, a strong newspaper is the fabric of a small town. Without strong local journalism, the fabric becomes frayed.

So we cannot give up. As Cullen describes, the reporter is the cornerstone of an informed electorate in a functioning democracy.

I agree. And because you’re reading this newspaper today, I must believe you do, too.

“Storm Lake” is streaming for free on the PBS Independent Lens website for a few more days at https:///www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/storm-lake.


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