Read All About It—A Free Press Is A Gift

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JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Almost daily, depressing headlines report the sorry state of the news business and what its decline will mean for a public that needs to be more informed than ever.

The triple threat of rapid growth of online media, prohibitive costs of publishing newspapers and magazines, and a lack of sufficient advertising and subscription revenue to make up for daunting deficits adds up to a sorry story for American journalism.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. The same could be said of journalism, if you consider local to be not only physical proximity but a community of interest. The loss of a local newspaper or an outlet that features news of interest to a certain group too often means that vital information is lost. Ignorance is far from bliss.    

The Associated Press estimates that more than 1,400 cities and towns across the nation have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years. And the Pew Research Center found that about 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs disappeared in the 10 years ending in 2017. Those losses mean that readers will miss insights and revelations about public policy that affect their lives every day.

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Examples abound.

The St. Louis Post-Disptach recently sold its longtime downtown headquarters and will move to a smaller building a block away. It also announced it will shift its layout and design to journalists in Munster, Ind., who may never have been to St. Louis and certainly will not have the institutional knowledge to backstop reporters and make sure stories are accurate. 

The newspaper also offered another round of buyouts to veteran employees. The loss of experienced journalists — the copy editors and designers who were laid off and others who are leaving voluntarily — will further weaken a staff that will still have to cover vital developments such as the Better Together movement, activity in Jefferson City and efforts to revitalize the area’s economy.

The shrinking of journalism will affect Jewish readers directly. The venerated Jewish Forward, the English-language successor to the Yiddish Forward, will soon shut down its print products, including its magazine, moving to an online-only format. Veteran editors have been fired or put on a path to involuntary retirement. The New York Jewish Week, which ranks toward the top of the American Jewish press, recently published a front page appeal to readers for financial help.

In journalism, as in other businesses, competition can prompt excellence. At one time, St. Louis had three daily newspapers: the Post-Dispatch, the Globe-Democrat and the Star-Times. Reporters at any one of those outlets were always eager to scoop the others and give readers fresh details about ongoing stories. With the growth of radio and television news, competition became even keener.

For coverage of Jewish issues, for many years the Jewish Light and the Missouri Jewish Post & Opinion provided news, features and bulletin board items that readers couldn’t find anywhere else. But the demise of the Post & Opinion shows that they, too, were subject to the same financial pressures that have led to the sharp reduction of newspapers overall.

The not-for-profit Jewish Light itself has faced growing pressures. Knowing there was interest in moving to a free model, whereby anyone could enjoy the paper at no cost, the Light entered into a productive, three-year partnership with Jewish Federation, the Staenberg Family Foundation, and an anonymous donor family. These entities gave generously to the paper to help offset the added costs of circulation and printing. 

While that funding has provided the Light some breathing room, it will not last forever. We, like most newspapers, are looking for ways to increase our readership and ensure that we have enough funding to continue producing important stories on the Jewish community decades from now.

In these days of attacks on the press as purveyors of “fake news” and journalists as “enemies of the people,” a decline of public faith in the accuracy and quality of news stories may be inevitable. But providing sufficient support for newspapers and magazines is more important than ever, to ensure that the public will have real choices among quality news outlets locally and nationally.

Without a vigorous free press as a public watchdog, scandals like Watergate and the tissue of lies surrounding military misadventures would flourish under the radar and outside of public scrutiny.

The famous poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller talks of the danger of staying silent, decrying how because no one spoke up when they came for the socialists or the trade unionists, there was no one left to speak for the Jews. Today, that warning has been modernized to say that first they came for the journalists — and no one knows what happened after that.

Don’t let the news continue to wither. To help assure hard-hitting and accurate coverage of critically important events, support your media, locally and nationally, financially and otherwise. An America without a robust free press would be dangerously diminished.