In 2017, readers of The Topeka Capital-Journal discovered that St. Francis Health Center was at risk of closure. This revelation led to a vast outcry in our community, as well as public demonstrations of support. A month after the story came out, Denver-based SCL Health sold the hospital to Ardent Health Services and the University of Kansas Health System.
Readers also learned about the culture of “toxic leadership” at the Kansas National Guard, including allegations of racist verbal abuse, bullying and a lack of accountability among high-ranking officials.
After Dominique White was shot and killed by two Topeka Police officers last September, the Lawrence Police Department failed to produce a Kansas Standard Offense Report (which should be available within 72 hours of an offense taking place) for more than five weeks. A KSOR was finally released a day after The Capital-Journal reported on the delay.
These are just a few examples of the impact that local journalism has had on our community and state over the past year. Every day, reporters across the country do the hard (often thankless) work necessary to keep their readers informed — from filing open records requests to analyzing public documents to interviewing local officials, activists and citizens. It’s all part of a constant effort to illuminate what’s actually happening in their communities — an effort many Americans have become cynical about over the past couple of years.
In 2016, Gallup reported that only 20 percent of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. While this proportion rose to 27 percent in 2017, the trend has been downward throughout the 2000s. Other trends are similarly disturbing: According to Pew Research Center, between 1994 and 2014, the newspaper industry lost 20,000 jobs — a 39 percent decline. Between 1994 and 2016, weekday circulation collapsed from almost 60 million to around 35 million. And since 2006, annual advertising revenue has fallen from almost $50 billion to around $18 billion.
With less and less resources, newspapers are being forced to lay off staff. They’re also rapidly losing value. And a Pew survey conducted in January 2016 found that only 5 percent of the American adults who had “learned about the presidential election in the past week named print newspapers as their ‘most helpful’ source — trailing nearly every other category by wide margins.” These are all indicators that American newspapers continue to face huge obstacles — something that could end up being particularly harmful to small communities.
If these trends persist, a day might come when local journalism is no longer sustainable. This would be a disaster for communities that rely on their local newspapers to cover everything from city council elections to crime. If newspapers can no longer operate, how much corruption will go undetected and unreported? How many voters will be less informed (or perhaps completely uninformed) about candidates for local office? How will people find out about stories like the St. Francis sale and the lack of transparency on the White shooting?
While major newspapers have seen a spike in digital subscriptions over the past year, these aren’t the papers that millions of Americans rely upon to tell them what’s happening in their own neighborhoods. If we don’t figure out a way to preserve local journalism, these Americans will be at risk of losing the only institutions whose sole purpose is to tell them the truth every day.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.