EDITORIAL: Democracy News serves the public interest, public good

May 5—Consider news like light or electricity. It's often taken for granted until it's not there. There's a collective darkness encroaching on society with the loss of rural newspapers.

A recent report by the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development shed light on how a decline in rural newspapers is eroding the infrastructure of community and democracy. The report "The Disappearing Rural Newspaper" shows a 26% decline in traditional newspapers in rural Minnesota since 2000. It shows a 70% decline of people working for newspapers.

Suburban weekly neighborhood newspapers made up 40% of the 120 papers that closed down between 2000 and 2022.

The acquiring and securing of information and facts has always been the cornerstone to a functioning democracy. People need to know what their government is doing before they can make their voice heard. As that well of information dries up, so too will the ability of people to petition their government, influences policies or complain about taxes.

So the news organization has a role beyond making a profit and keeping the doors open. It has a public service purpose to serve the public interest and the public good. Similarly, there is a role and responsibility for the citizens in a democracy to invest in institutions that deliver news and public information.

The report interviewed a number of news consumers in places where newspapers have closed down. The consumers report negative consequences such living in a community where children who will no longer have their name or photo in the paper for an important school or sporting event. Birth and wedding announcements will have no permanent place in the historical archives of these places without the hard copy first draft of history that is a newspaper.

In fact, the community-building role of newspapers is as important as the watchdog role.

But a good number of people haven't yet experienced those problems and haven't imagined a world without the news, small or big. A Pew Research Center survey in 2011 asked consumers how they might be affected if they no longer had a newspaper, and some 70% said they would be affected not at all or very little.

There's plenty of blame to go around when considering how this public asset disappeared so quickly and without much notice. The report cites the explosion of the internet and social media as a means to replace newspapers. The free "Craigslist" for classified ads effectively killed the paid version that many newspapers relied upon.

The financial crisis of 2008 decimated print advertising, which in most cases comprised 80% of newspaper revenue. The explosion of online purchasing through giants like Amazon and advertising on Facebook and Google have added to the damage.

So newspapers have to come up with other revenue models. Some, like The Free Press, have been able to transition from an advertising based model to a subscriber based model, where most of the revenue now comes from subscribers. That's a good start, but the industry is by no means out of the woods yet.

We urge the public to consider the importance of news and information to keep our democracy viable and build community. We would encourage investments in institutions that encourage the building of the information infrastructure and right now newspapers are best equipped to do that.

Without lights, electricity or news, we're all in the dark.