“A sense of this necessity and a submission to it, is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” — Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789, Library of Congress
As a working journalist who has spent my entire adult career in the news media, most of that time working as a daily newspaper reporter, this quote from Thomas Jefferson has always encapsulated for me both the passion and purpose of my profession. It is one of several quotes by Jefferson expressing his view of how critical it is for citizens to be well-informed as to what is going on in their communities, so that they can positively effect change when necessary. The news media, the free press, has been the vanguard of that information to the public since the founding of the U.S. It is why the press is one of the few professions protected in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.
As much as Jefferson inspired me as a young journalist and throughout my career, I find his words particularly poignant today, given the state of the news media — and how pained and alarmed Jefferson would be to see the erosion of our democracy as so many communities find themselves stranded in “news deserts.”
The term “news desert” may be unfamiliar to you, but it describes communities that are no longer covered by daily or nondaily newspapers. The term emerged in the U.S. after hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers were closed in the 2000s and the 2010s. It is a familiar term for longtime journalists like me and should concern everyone who believes in Jefferson’s words of the importance of a well-informed citizenry and democracy.
During my career as a journalist, I worked for my small hometown newspaper in Texas, and I worked at a major daily newspaper in Ohio. In those times, newspapers had the luxury of sending a reporter out to a school board meeting, staying for several hours and then going back to the newsroom to produce a story. Small daily and weekly newspapers covering cities and counties were common around the country, covering school board and city government meetings and reporting on everything from students who made the honor roll at secondary schools to Little League baseball results.
Those newspapers have all but disappeared. Today, newsrooms are a fraction of the size they once were — if they are open at all. They no longer have the staff to report on those school board meetings and government meetings across the areas they normally cover. Those areas are now going without coverage from the media — leaving the public uninformed and threatening democracy as we know it. Today, disinformation thrives in such news deserts.
Inadequate local news coverage
Several years ago, when I moved to New Jersey, I too found myself lost in a news desert. Curious to learn about my new hometown in South Jersey and the surrounding region, I could not find any local news outlets or coverage. I learned quickly that New Jersey as a state has always been challenged to get adequate coverage. A 2018 Bloomberg article put it best about the state’s news challenges: “New Jersey, for example, lives in the shadow of both New York and Philadelphia. Sandwiched between large media markets, the state has struggled to lure journalists to cover local news for smaller outlets,” the Bloomberg article stated.
To quote another historic visionary, necessity is the mother of invention. I now operate a website, Front Runner New Jersey.com, which covers the African American and Latino communities throughout South Jersey. Shortly after launching my site, I learned that the superintendent of one of the largest school districts in Cumberland County had left her post. Curious, I went to the daily newspaper and another news outlet to see if they carried the story of the superintendent’s departure. There wasn’t even a brief.
A few months later, I learned through a source that a new superintendent had been hired. I went back to those same media outlets to find out about the new superintendent. Nothing. I called the school district and did my own feature story as part of Front Runner New Jersey.com. It became one of the best-read stories ever on my website.
Front Runner New Jersey has been able to step into that South Jersey news desert gap somewhat with our reporting on the Black and Latino communities on a nearly daily basis, something that was not being done up to my arrival to New Jersey four years ago. As a one-man news operation, however, I constantly face limitations on what I can do as opposed to what I know and believe, as a veteran news reporter, should be done — and I still need to hold another full-time job to actually earn a living.
Deep hunger for local news
The interest in local news is there. People want to know and read about their own communities. In fact, as I continue to publish my site, I find there is a deep hunger and appreciation for local news, but the playing field of who covers it has changed dramatically. In many cases, it’s journalists like me, who have had to learn to be entrepreneurs and small business owners, ad salesmen and web designers, all while maintaining other employment to pay the bills.
While my site represents the hope that the internet will lead to a resurgence of the small-town newspaper and local media outlets, the internet is also responsible for breaking the advertising model that paid for newspapers and media outlets in the past. Those dollars are now spread out over a diverse field — a fair majority of which has not gone back into news coverage. Though there are attempts going on around the country — some, like Patch and Tap Into, have proven more successful than others — the reality of how to pay for news is daunting. I understand a new, consistent funding for news media outlets is still emerging, but until that happens, the news media will continue to fight for ways to get things done with fewer resources.
Front Runner New Jersey recently got a lifeline when we were selected to participate in Facebook’s Bulletin platform, which helps independent journalists reach new audiences and has given me the ability to add podcasts and live audio rooms in the future. The Bulletin platform is part of Facebook’s investment in supporting independent, local journalism covering communities of color — enabling and fostering democracy for those who suffer most from news desert disenfranchisement. Bulletin will allow FRNJ Extra, my extension of Front Runner New Jersey.com, giving me the opportunity to foster deeper connections with my audiences through tools like Groups, along with it providing valuable feedback. Our country and our democracy have suffered tremendously under the disintegration of a robust free press; it would be good business and good citizenship for other corporations and entities who have the resources to support legitimate, independent journalism to invest in building these much-needed oases in our news deserts.
Thomas Jefferson was right in 1789 — and now in 2021 — about how a well-informed citizenry can make a positive impact on democracy. In this era where disinformation is crowding out well-researched and credible news, that need for a well-informed citizenry is more critical than ever. I would argue that there is no other time in the history of this country where it has been more important.