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The Washington Post motto, "Democracy Dies In Darkness," may seem a bit melodramatic, but is an apt description of the disaster unfolding in communities across the U.S. and Arkansas, as newspapers close or shrink.

This unfolding tragedy becomes especially noticeable this week (March 10-16) as journalists and open-government advocates mark Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week has been observed annually since 2005 to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate for the Bill of Rights.

Whatever you think about newspapers or the hardworking, underpaid journalists they employ, the decades-long decline of hometown newspapers is creating what researchers call "news deserts" -- towns, counties and even larger areas that no longer have regular local coverage of events and issues that affect real people.

More than 1,400 cities in the U.S. have lost their main source of local news over the past 15 years, the Associated Press found in analyzing data compiled by University of North Carolina researchers.

Many of those towns are in rural and lower-income areas, often with an aging population, according to the AP.

Since 2015, GateHouse Media closed 10 newspapers in Arkansas, in North Little Rock, Lonoke, Cabot, Carlisle, Sherwood, Maumelle, Jacksonville, Arkadelphia and Prescott, where it published two papers, the Hope Star and Nevada County Picayune Times.

The Arkansas Leader in Jacksonville expanded into North Little Rock after the closure of the North Little Rock Times, but the loss of so many newspapers in a relatively short period means fewer eyes observing local government on behalf of busy citizens.

On top of closures, the economics of the newspaper business has reduced many more publications to shells of what they once were.

Newspapers in Arkansas have cut back on home delivery or reduced the frequency of publication in an effort to stanch the flow of red ink because of the loss of advertising revenue, once their primary source of business income.

Some online news outlets, often run by public-spirited former newspaper journalists, try to make up at least part of the loss of a local newspaper.

This may not seem significant to those who believe that news is available everywhere, thanks to Facebook, Twitter and other internet platforms or that newspapers can't be trusted.

But research shows that losing consistent reporting on local government, sports events or feel-good features on everyday citizens poses a danger to our sense of community.

The lack of such journalism also costs taxpayers money, centralizes power among fewer people and can hurt public health.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication, according to an AP article prepared for Sunshine Week.

The researchers found that the increase had nothing to do with the economy.

"Rather, the demise of a paper leaves readers in the dark and emboldens elected officials to sign off on higher wages, larger payrolls and ballooning budget deficits," the researchers told the AP.

A Stanford University researcher found a similar pattern when investigative journalism vanishes at the local level, the AP reported.

"When investigative scrutiny declines, stories go untold, which means waste, fraud, and abuse will be less likely to be discovered," said James Hamilton, director of the Stanford Journalism Program.

Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who oversaw the "news desert" report released last fall, told the AP:

"Strong newspapers have been good for democracy, and both educators and informers of a citizenry and its governing officials. They have been problem-solvers.

"That is what you are missing when you don't have someone covering you and bringing transparency or sunlight onto government decisions and giving people a say in how those government decisions are made," Abernathy said.

Despite the gloom, Sunshine Week deserves to be celebrated as a reminder that the nation's founders, especially the author of our Constitution, believed in the power of the press to engage citizens in the act of governing themselves.

We should continue to uphold that faith and not allow our democracy to wither in the dark.

Sonny Albarado is projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition.

Editorial on 03/12/2019

Print Headline: 'Democracy dies in darkness'

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