On Monday the New York Times published a front-page article about “a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country.” These sites, with names like Des Moines Sun and Ann Arbor Times, look like traditional local papers. In fact, they are filled with propaganda, the Times reported, produced by a well-financed company with a conservative political mission.
When we started the Independent, we had been watching once-thriving local papers shrink. We worried that apathy was the enemy. Now we see powerful corporate interests crushing independent community journalism.
Brian Timpone, a former TV reporter, is head of this new network. He had previously launched a company called Journatic. Instead of hiring on-the-ground reporters, it used overseas workers to churn public information into news briefs. The bylines were made up.
“I personally think that we’re saving journalism with our approach,” Timpone told an interviewer. “No one covers all these small towns.”
Covering news in small towns and cities is actually something the founders of this country thought about. They didn’t just enshrine freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights. They established rules to make it easy to publish and distribute local newspapers through the mail. That’s why, two weeks ago, we printed our annual statement of ownership, management, and circulation, required by the Postal Service of every newspaper that is mailed.
Newspapers are given special privileges under law: lower postage rates, especially when mailed within the county, and (theoretically, at least) fast delivery. In exchange, papers must certify their circulation numbers and disclose the names of their owners and creditors. They must distinguish between legitimate editorial content and paid advertising, and the amount of advertising they contain is limited.
This arrangement over many decades produced a diverse and vibrant press in this country, with multiple newspapers in many local markets. “In the past, ensuring a vibrant free press made up of competing outlets was an express aim of federal policy,” wrote Emily Bazelon in Sunday’s New York Times.
In recent years, and especially under the current administration, newspapers and the Postal Service alike have come under attack, and both have been seriously weakened. The damage to democracy on both fronts is grievous.
In our statement of ownership, we published the names and addresses of every one of our stockholders. Our long-term goal for the Independent is broad-based local community ownership of a thriving and transparent operation. Read the statements of our competition: no people are named as owners, just “Gannett Co., Inc.”
Democracy is worth fighting for, and an independent press is a vital weapon in that fight. Without it, we can’t even see the enemy.