Jim Zachary: News deserts are a real danger

News matters.

Newspapers matter.

Truth matters.

News deserts are a danger to communities across the country and throughout the state of Georgia.

Someone must keep an eye on government, public institutions and the powerful.

Someone must be the eyes and ears of the public.

Someone must make public records requests, attend public meetings and report.

Someone must provide an open, free marketplace of ideas.

Someone must celebrate the community and keep people informed.

That “someone” has always been a journalist at the community newspaper.

Recently, the publisher of the Waycross Journal-Herald announced the newspaper would close its doors because it was just not financially viable any longer. Tragically, not long after that announcement the longstanding publisher/owner was found dead in his office.

His death has saddened the community there and the newspaper community across the state.

In a very poignant and informative column published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bert Roughton wrote, “For more than a century, folks in Ware County unfolded The Waycross Journal-Herald to catch up on the births, deaths and everything that happened in between. They could keep up with local high school scores, the latest speaker at the Kiwanis and whose son made Eagle Scout. They could see what county commissioners and city council members were up to. Now and then, they even read about their representatives in Atlanta and Washington. Small stories add up to a real place; the Journal-Herald reminded folks who they were, where they had been and where they were going. Its pages held a community with thousands of opinions uttered in a shared voice.”

He added, “That voice has fallen silent.”

It could not be said any better.

So far, Ware County is the 29th county in Georgia to lose its newspaper and another news desert is formed.

When that happens, Roughton says, democracy dies a little.

There is a bit of hope in Waycross with plans by a former newspaper staffer to reopen a weekly newspaper there.

A shocking report published by the Poynter Institute, released around this time last year, painted a bleak picture. The report was based on research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. At that time, the report indicated 20% of all metro and community newspapers in the United States — about 1,800 — had gone out of business or merged since 2004.

All in all, that report indicated around 1,300 communities had lost local news coverage.

That’s not just bad for newspapers, bad for reporters and editors, and bad for other newspaper staff. It is horrible for communities and yes, a danger to democracy.

Support local journalism.

Support your local newspaper.

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI's regional editor for its Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. He is vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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