News organizations across the country often highlight the mid-March “Sunshine Week” — created by the American Society of News Editors to remind the public of the press’s crucial role in ensuring open government — by writing editorials or commentaries about the importance of a free press. This week, for the second straight year, the presidency of Donald Trump is being used as a bogeyman to suggest that the media’s efforts are more endangered than ever. The Associated Press offered such an example in a package in conjunction with this Sunshine Week.
“President Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit the news media has spread to officials at all levels of government, who are echoing his use of the term ‘fake news’ as a weapon against unflattering stories,” according to AP reporter Ryan J. Foley. “It’s become ubiquitous as a signal to a politician’s supporters to ignore legitimate reporting and hard questions, as a smear of the beleaguered and dwindling local press corps, and as a way for conservatives to push back against what they call biased stories.”
It is telling that the story notes that the claim of bias comes from conservatives, which raises the question: Why don’t liberals complain as much about media bias? The obvious liberal slant to the media is typically ignored in favor of journalists adopting the mantle of victimhood.
Sunshine Week is of particular interest this year to those of us at the Times-Gazette, because our small-town daily is in the midst of celebrating its 200th anniversary. Founded in 1818 by a businessman named Moses Carothers, the newspaper has undergone various names, ownerships and frequencies (weekly, twice-weekly, daily) but continues to thrive.
Though the years, the Times-Gazette has provided the first draft of local history, along with holding local government officials accountable and providing readers with in-depth analysis of important local issues. It has also regularly highlighted the accomplishments of young and old in the manner unique to small community newspapers.
In his first edition, published June 1818, Carothers wrote that he hoped as editor “to be able to continue the publication of his paper henceforth without intermission, and also to merit by his impartial and steady course in the discharge of his editorial duties that patronage which has been extended to him at a risk.”
It is safe to say that Carothers never dreamed that his little newspaper would still be providing news and information “without intermission” 200 years later, not only in print but also through all the new and evolving digital platforms. Also impossible for Carothers to anticipate was the national attention — and in some cases, ridicule — his humble endeavor would garner for its endorsement of the Republican candidate for president in 2016.
I share the concern over the shaky position of newspapers today, but not for the same reason as many of my colleagues. The attacks by the president and others cannot hurt us. They are merely firing ammunition handed them by media outlets that have too often abandoned their “impartial and steady course” — as Carothers put it 200 years ago — in favor of point-of-view journalism and obvious agendas reflected in tabloid-style, click-bait headlines and sensationalized reporting.
While some of our most vaunted newspapers are on unstable footing, both financially and institutionally, smaller papers are holding their own or even growing. The industry magazine Editor & Publisher reported in 2016, “Small, community newspapers across the country are not just surviving, but — in many cases — actually thriving. Many of them have managed to dodge the layoffs and downsizing that larger papers have had to face.”
Some of the reasons for that have to do with the “hyper-local” coverage model many small newspapers have adopted. But “reader trust” — a crucial component of a newspaper’s success — is stronger among readers of local community newspapers than their big-city counterparts, as noted in an NPR feature last year. The reasons are many, but “one of the big differences between larger metro newspapers and community journalism is the staff has to face its audience every day,” NPR’s Clay Masters noted.
Sunshine Week will be dominated by media outlets wringing their hands over attacks from government officials. The media would do better to make it a week of introspection.
Fight fiercely for open government. Hold elected officials accountable. But make quality journalism the only agenda, impartiality the standard and an adherence to “just the facts” reporting the rule, relegating agendas and viewpoints to the opinion pages. Recommitting to those benchmarks might help maintain what Carothers called our “steady course” for another couple of centuries, at least.