âThe feeling of this necessity and the submission to it are for me new and consoling proof that wherever the people are well informed, they can be entrusted with their own government; that whenever things get so bad that they get their attention, they can be counted on to make it right. – Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789, Library of Congress
As an active journalist who has spent my entire adult career in news media, most of his time as a newspaper reporter, this quote from Thomas Jefferson has always summed up for me both the passion and the purpose of my profession. This is one of many quotes from Jefferson expressing his perspective on the importance of citizens being well informed about what is going on in their communities, so that they can make positive changes when needed. The news media, the free press, have been at the forefront of providing this information to the public since the founding of the United States. This is why the press is one of the few professions protected by the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution.
As much as Jefferson inspired me as a young journalist, and throughout my career I find his words particularly poignant today, given the state of the news media – and how grieved and alarmed Jefferson would be about see the erosion of our democracy as so many communities find themselves stranded in “information deserts”.
The term âinformation desertâ may be new to you, but it describes communities that are no longer covered by the daily or non-daily newspapers. The term first appeared in the United States after the shutdown of hundreds of dailies and weeklies in the 2000s and 2010. It’s a familiar term to longtime journalists like myself and should apply to anyone who believes Jefferson’s words on the importance of well-informed citizenship and democracy.
During my career as a journalist, I worked for the small newspaper in my hometown in Texas and I worked for a large daily newspaper in Ohio. Back then, newspapers had the luxury of sending a reporter to a school board meeting, staying there for several hours, and then returning to the newsroom to produce an article. Small daily and weekly newspapers covering towns and counties were common across the country, covering school board and municipal government meetings and reporting on everything from students who made the honor roll in high schools to results. of Little League Baseball.
These newspapers have practically disappeared. Today newsrooms are a fraction of the size they once were, if they’re open. They no longer have the staff to report on those school board meetings and government meetings in the areas they normally cover. These areas are now without media coverage, leaving the public uninformed and threatening democracy as we know it. Today, disinformation thrives in these news deserts.
Inadequate local media coverage
Several years ago, when I moved to New Jersey, I too found myself lost in a news wasteland. Curious to learn more about my new hometown in South Jersey and the surrounding area, I couldn’t find any media or local coverage. I quickly learned that New Jersey as a state has always been challenged to get adequate coverage. A 2018 Bloomberg article better expressed the state’s current challenges: âNew Jersey, for example, lives in the shadow of New York and Philadelphia. Sandwiched between large media markets, the state has struggled to attract journalists to cover local news for smaller media, âthe Bloomberg article said.
To quote another historical visionary, necessity is the mother of invention. I now operate a website, Front Runner New Jersey.com, which covers African American and Latino communities throughout South Jersey. Shortly after launching my site, I learned that the superintendent of one of the largest school districts in Cumberland County had left her post. Curious, I went to see the daily and another media to see if they reported the story of the departure of the commissioner. There wasn’t even a memory.
A few months later, I learned from a source that a new superintendent had been hired. I went back to those same media to find out more about the new superintendent. Nothing. I called the school district and did my own story for Front Runner New Jersey.com. It has become one of the most read stories on my website.
Front Runner New Jersey was able to intervene almost daily in the South Jersey news desert with our reporting on Black and Latino communities, which was not done until I arrived in New Jersey. Four years ago. As a personal information company, however, I am constantly faced with limits on what I can do as opposed to what I know and believe, as a seasoned journalist, it should be done – and I still have to have another full time job to actually make a living.
Great hunger for local information
The interest in local news is there. People want to know and read about their own communities. In fact, as I continue to publish my site, I see that there is a deep hunger and appreciation for local news, but the playing field of who covers it has changed dramatically. In many cases, it was journalists like me who had to learn to be entrepreneurs and small business owners, advertising salespeople and web designers, while still keeping another job to pay the bills.
While my site represents the hope that the internet will lead to a resurgence of small town newspapers and local media, the internet is also responsible for breaking the advertising model that paid newspapers and media in the past. These dollars are now spread across a diverse field – a good majority of which have not returned in media coverage. While there are attempts going on across the country – some, like Patch and Tap Into, have proven to be more successful than others – the reality of how to pay for the news is daunting. I understand that cohesive new funding for news media is always emerging, but until that happens the news media will continue to struggle to find ways to get things done. with fewer resources.
Front Runner New Jersey recently got a lifeline when we were selected to participate in Facebook’s Bulletin platform, which helps freelance journalists reach new audiences and gave me the ability to add podcasts and live audio rooms in the future. The Bulletin platform is part of Facebook’s investment in supporting independent local journalism covering communities of color – enabling and promoting democracy for those who suffer most from disenfranchised in the information desert . Bulletin will allow FRNJ Extra, my extension of Front Runner New Jersey.com, to give me the opportunity to foster deeper connections with my audience through tools such as groups, while providing valuable feedback. Our country and our democracy have suffered greatly from the disintegration of a free and robust press; it would be good business and good citizenship for other companies and entities that have the resources to support legitimate and independent journalism to invest in building these much-needed oases in our information deserts.
Thomas Jefferson was right in 1789 – and now in 2021 – about how well-informed citizens can positively impact democracy. In an age when disinformation crowds out well-documented and credible information, this need for well-informed citizens is more critical than ever. I would say that there is no other time in the history of this country when it was more important.