Legislature: House of Representatives recognizes media’s role as government watchdog

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    By Representative McLachlan
    Special to the SUN

    Raised in a household of newspaper readers, I grew accustomed to absorbing news every night. Those were the days when the newspaper, radio and 5 p.m. news were the only glimpses into the outside world we had. The media was a trusted source of information on to which we could base our opinions.
    I have continued reading papers to this day. I read every paper in District 59, get more online and peruse the news thoughtfully. Perhaps through the habit of reading, I am getting pretty good at sorting out news from fluff, facts from fiction.
    And I wish more people could do the same.
    We celebrated the media last week in the House of Representatives; Rep. Lisa Cutter and I appreciated the media’s role as the watchdog on government and the mechanism to show light into the darkest corners.
    With the advent of some Facebook stories, right-wing and left-wing resources, and foreign countries posting knowingly fake news, designed to look real, the art of journalism has been stretched thin. We need the journalistic watchdogs as they look critically at the issues, but their reputation is often undermined by the many non-reputable sources.
    As a journalism major, former reporter and journalism teacher, I have seen what understanding the facts and underlying story means when reporting. I understand how when one journalist makes a mistake, it can make all journalists look bad, and how cracking a story and revealing the truth makes the media look healthy again.
    Sadly, hundreds of local newspapers have closed within the last 10 years, or reduced their printing schedule or gone online. The number of statehouse reporters in the country has decreased by 35 percent.
    Recently, I learned towns without local newspapers have generally higher tax rates. A study put out a couple of years ago, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” is co-authored by Paul Gao, a professor of finance at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
    He argues there is a direct relationship between the loss of a local paper and both the higher cost and lower efficiency of government.
    “We think,” Gao wrote, “the local newspaper plays an important and unique role that cannot be easily replaced by an online source or national news media.” His team’s research looked at about 1,600 English-language newspapers serving 1,266 counties in the United States between 1996-2015, excluding counties without a local newspaper.
    Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News was one paper they critiqued. It closed in 2009 and was known to provide thorough coverage of local government issues, including an audit of questionable federal funds allocated to the sheriff’s department, local deals surrounding the Denver International Airport and a series of other “handshake deals,” the report notes.
    The research team looked at how tax dollars were being spent while the paper was being published and then again after the paper had closed. The results showed the News was certainly a watchdog agent. Without it, the spread or yield of newly issued municipal bonds increased by 37 basis points. Translation? The local government’s cost of borrowing money and, therefore, the risk, increased once the paper had gone.
    They found the same happened in many cities, including Cincinnati, when the Post closed in 2007.
    The costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after a local paper closes, Gao found, a finding he said can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions. Researchers looked at the difference in borrowing costs between a county that lost its newspaper with a similarly-sized and neighboring county that didn’t. Excluding state bonds, to keep things local, they concluded that higher bond costs correlated with the decline in local investigative reporting.
    The civic watchdog seems to have made the difference.
    Without subscribers and advertisers to fund the paper, the paper has no reporters. Without reporters, government can cruise along without anyone both watching and reporting, and can quickly escalate.
    The issue is particularly acute in rural areas, where residents have often depended on one source for their news; few have access to the trifecta of local newspaper, radio and television.
    The study offered no solution, just an outline of a problem. “… we hope this paper raises awareness of the importance of a local newspaper. It’s like a public good or an environmental protection. Good to have but, we also recognize, ultimately costly.”