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Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?

 

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How will the death of newspapers affect good citizenship? This is part of the cover story project in the Nov. 12 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly. Here, Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate reporter Danny Monteverde takes notes during a New Orleans City Council meeting. (Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor)

 

 One Saturday in June, the Pinstripe Brass Band played a traditional jazz funeral in the lakeside Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. When "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" gave way to a livelier tune, dozens of mourners danced.

But there was no coffin. Black frosting on a sheet cake spelled "-30-," the mark reporters put at a story's end. This was a requiem for a newspaper.

The 175-year-old daily Times-Picayune, with a paid weekday circulation of more than 134,000, had announced plans to slash print publication to three days a week, leaving daily coverage to its online edition. "Paper Lays Off 200 Employees" blared a Times-Picayune headline. Those cuts included the funeral's host, photographer John McCusker, who had documented hurricane Katrina from a kayak after losing his home to the floodwaters.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Mr. McCusker and his colleagues had madeThe Times-Picayune indispensable to a community rebuilding after tremendous loss.

So when readers learned their daily paper was going away, many saw a dangerous civic situation.

The irregular, diminished patchwork of media that remains – which encompasses fewer seasoned reporters – won't come close to offering the same intensive coverage that a full-force daily did, says activist Anne Milling. On the watchdog side, that means reduced government accountability. And on the information-delivery side, in a city where a third of adults lack home Internet access, the new Web focus will leave the most vulnerable Picayune readers behind.

"A daily Times-Picayune has been the backbone of the community in our post-Katrina environment and provides the foundation for all civic dialogue and discourse," Ms. Milling wrote in a notice announcing the launch of The Times-Picayune Citizens' Group, an alliance she founded to amplify readers' concerns.

And readers were upset.

Hundreds of them attended rallies, waving placards that said "Don't Stop the Presses." More than 9,000 signed an online petition. "Save the Picayune" lawn signs and Wild West-style "Wanted" posters with the new publisher's face cropped up across town. The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution calling unanimously for the paper to remain a daily. Readers began to boycott what they now called "The SomeTimes-Picayune."

Their daily paper had remained well read and profitable despite the newspaper industry's overall decline. Three-quarters of residents saw the paper each week, making its stories a centerpiece of conversation from barbershops to city hall.

New Orleans was about to become the largest city in America without its own daily paper. But beneath the drama was a quieter question: Does it matter?

More than sentiment is at stake. The number of American daily newspapers has fallen from 1,878 in 1940 to 1,382 last year. When daily newspapers die, communities become less connected and collaborative, new studies suggest. Economists and media researchers are seeing a drop-off in civic participation – the same kind of collective vigor readers showed in fighting for The Times-Picayune – after the presses stop rolling.

"More of American life now occurs in shadow. And we cannot know what we do not know," said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of thePew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, testifying at a 2009 Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing on the future of news.

New research suggests that fewer people vote after their communities lose a daily print newspaper. Fewer run for office. Fewer boycott – or buy – something based on what they think of a company's values. Fewer contact public leaders to voice opinions. Fewer pitch in with neighborhood groups. More incumbent politicians get reelected. And these things happen despite the presence of digital and broadcast media.

What you don't know may hurt you

Tom Stites founded the Banyan Project – an initiative to develop reader-owned, online news cooperatives, which he incubated as a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society – because he worries about "news deserts."

"A news desert is a community whose sources of original reporting have dried up entirely, or are diminished to the point where they can no longer fill the information needs of the communities they serve," he explains. Mr. Stites is working to build a pilot website inHaverhill, Mass., a place he describes as "an obvious news desert."

The town used to have a daily paper. But in 1998, the daily Haverhill Gazette was sold and pared down to once a week.

Not long after, disaster struck the 60,000-person community. Between 1999 and 2001, the town-owned Hale Municipal Hospital lost $15 million, according to Boston Business Journal. Inaccurate filings by a private manager obscured the extent of the problem, which piled on top of preexisting debt and led to the hospital's sale in 2001. Citizens are still on the hook, repaying $7 million annually until 2023.

"I think a good newspaper would have helped our community do a better job," says John Cuneo, who runs a local antipoverty nonprofit. Robust reporting, he suggests, might have mitigated the crisis and given citizens a more critical assessment.

He and other community members say a lack of daily news coverage leaves Haverhill residents in the dark about local events. "If we're throwing a fundraiser or trying to advance a community cause, it's a lot harder to get coverage than it used to be," he explains. (For these reasons and others, Mr. Cuneo now volunteers with the Banyan Project to develop its pilot site, Haverhill Matters.)

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