When in the course of human events did it become necessary for the United States to declare itself a free and independent country? History tells us it was July 4, 1776. I think it was much earlier.
That’s because I also hold this truth to be self-evident: that America was born not in the halls of Philadelphia’s Statehouse, but in the pages of our newspapers.
The American Colonies had only three dozen back then, a number kept low by the British occupiers. But, these periodicals wielded an outsize influence. They were the forum for a long and passionate conversation that prompted Americans to throw off the yoke of oppression and decide what kind of republic they wanted.
In the late 1700s, the colonies had one of the world’s highest adult literacy rates, close to 90 percent, by some counts. The power of print on these shores was vast. As Yale historian Akhil Reed Amar writes in his new book, “The Words that Made Us,” many of the Founders — Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton — weren’t just thoughtful patriots. They were regular “newspaper scribblers.”
Their scribbling provoked letters from readers and yet more articles that, together, became a crowdsourced drafting process for the country’s future. In a sense, Jefferson didn’t so much write The Declaration of Independence as simply summarize the conversation — and, of course, turn it into poetry.
That early reverence for discourse was written into the Constitution’s First Amendment, enshrining the press — i.e., newspapers — as a necessary component of democracy. The press was further nurtured by our new postal service, which offered a cheaper mailing rate for periodicals. It still does, though the current postmaster general, a Donald Trump holdover, would no doubt like to eliminate it.
He might not have to.
America’s newspapers are fighting for their lives. In the past 15 or years or so we’ve lost 10 percent of U.S. dailies, one-quarter of weeklies, half of total circulation and nearly 50 percent of newsroom jobs. Of the 1,270 surviving daily papers, half have been gobbled up by hedge funds and private equity firms, notorious for cutting costs and news coverage. Only about 15 percent of Americans subscribe to their local newspaper or its website.
What happened, of course, was the internet. It siphoned audiences and advertisers away from print and even broadcast outlets. But, the web doesn’t offer much actual news or informed debate. Instead, it amplifies extreme views, promotes polarization, wallows in conspiracy and teems with misinformation.
As a result, frightening numbers of Americans now believe COVID vaccines cause tuberculosis, the Democratic Party is led by Satan-worshipping child molesters and the U.S. military maintains bases on the dark side of the moon, where it meets with reptilian space aliens. Seriously. Not only do we disagree on politics, but we also hold different versions of reality.
Sure, our press was pretty unruly back in the 1700s. But, there’s something about the pedigree and permanence of print that encourages longer, less partisan, more thoughtful debate. Just measure an Op-Ed essay against a quip from a TV talking head.
One advantage of newspapers is that they are, with the exception of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, gloriously local. Newspaper journalists live where their readers do, send their kids to the same schools, depend on the local economy.
Research shows that bad things happen when local papers are forced to cut coverage or, worse, disappear. Corruption thrives, municipal finances suffer, elections become less competitive, legislators pay diminished attention to local needs.
And partisanship increases. A study by Louisiana State’s Joshua Darr and others shows that when local newspapers close, readers don’t shift to local broadcast stations or websites. They turn to national outlets, which tend to be more partisan and focused on conflict, rather than on consensus. Patrons of national news are more likely to vote for a single party for all offices.
Moreover, local newspapers offer Americans what political scientist Lilliana Mason calls a “cross-cutting identity,” one that transcends party affiliation. When people read about local governments, schools and charities, they think like neighbors. When they watch Fox News or MSNBC, they think like partisans.
The notion that newspapers are beneficial to political health has prompted U.S. senators from both parties to introduce the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would help publishers claw back some of the revenue they’ve lost to big internet firms. In the U.S. House, the bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act would create tax credits for local papers, also for subscribers and advertisers.
Both measures deserve swift passage, but they won’t save America’s newspapers by themselves. That task falls to those who benefit from having a vigorous and prosperous local press, namely us.
Independence Day is a good time to reflect on the role America’s press has played in sustaining democracy — and an ideal time to subscribe to your local newspaper.
The debate that began more than 250 years ago over the fate of our Republic is far from over. Let’s keep the conversation going, in the pages where it began.