Bell, California, has a population of 37,000 and, until 2010, a town manager making almost $800,000 a year. The police chief, meanwhile, was making $457,000. That's 50 percent more than the salary made by the police chief of nearby Los Angeles, population 4 million.
What stopped this from continuing? An investigation by the Los Angeles Times. Before that, Bell, a suburb of L.A., had lost its local newspaper in the late 1990s. When the town manager had started working there in 1993, he was making $72,000.
Bell offers one possible example of what three professors say is a larger reality: When newspapers close, the county’s taxpayers suffer. Their study found that local government borrowing costs rose, the number of government employees increased by four people per 1,000 residents, government wages increased by a median of $1.4 million, and tax revenues increased by $85 per person.
The professors – Dermot Murphy and Chang Lee with the University of Illinois at Chicago and Pengjie Gao at the University of Notre Dame – identified newspaper closures across the country from 1996 to 2015. They compared counties whose total number of newspapers dropped to two or fewer with neighboring counties where that didn’t happen.
Even the best academic studies can be misinterpreted or be based on faulty assumptions. I wish the authors had studied only communities that are no longer covered by any newspaper instead of including counties with up to two. That would offer more insight into Arkansas, where in many cases a single newspaper covers a county’s largest city and also the surrounding area.
Still, the study rings true because the newspaper is often the only outside entity paying attention to local governments on the public’s behalf. When I was doing beat reporting in Arkadelphia and Malvern, there were times when I was the only member of the public, or one of a very few, sitting in a city council, school board, or planning commission meeting. The officials – and they were good folks – knew their local newspaper would publicize their decisions, and it no doubt affected their behavior.
Otherwise, those public decisions would have been made privately. You think your local blogger with 23 followers is going to sit through a three-hour meeting on a Thursday night? And if he does, will anybody pay attention?
The study comes as newspaper circulation has been falling. The Pew Research Center estimates daily print and digital circulation had fallen to 31 million in 2017; it was more than 60 million in 1990, though Pew acknowledges today’s numbers are difficult to determine. Revenues have been dropping, too.
What’s happened since 1990, of course, is that the internet has taken over the world. Readers now have many information sources clamoring for their attention, but still only 24 hours in a day. Twitter and Facebook offer some good information, as well as an avalanche of ranting, fruitless debates, gossip and lies. Along with Google and Craigslist, they are vacuuming up not just readers’ attention but also advertising dollars.
A few national sites such as the New York Times have navigated this environment and appear to be turning the corner with their business model. But the New York Times isn’t sending a reporter to your city council meeting.
It’s not clear where we are going with this. Local media outlets may find new revenue sources in the digital age. Alternative ways to keep an eye on public officials may arise.
But two things are clear. One is that we’ve known since the early days of the republic that a free press is vital to good government. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1787, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The other is this: When a local newspaper goes away, it matters to a community. That was true of Atkins, Arkansas, where the closed weekly recently came back to life as a monthly. And it’s true across the country where, according to this study, local governments cost taxpayers more when there’s no newspaper watching them.
In other words, while the newspaper you’re reading was sold to you as a subscription, you might instead consider it an investment.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.