Voices
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Freedom isn't free

And that goes for press freedom, too

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

Newspapers from the start of the republic have hovered at endangered species status. The Stamp Act of 1765 led to a rally cry for independence-"no taxation without representation"-in part after it became apparent to the colonists, in the words of Patrick Henry, that the duty on newspapers and other paper goods "will be extremely burthensome and grievous."

With the Stamp Act repealed and a revolution underway, freedom of the press broke out everywhere-but wasn't always lucrative. Ben Franklin purchased The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette from his old boss after he declared bankruptcy. For his trouble Franklin inherited the paper's whopping 90 subscribers.

Ever ahead of his time, Franklin set out to remake a paper, in the cant of today's new media, more accessible to readers. He ran jokes, political satire, and moral essays he wrote himself. He renamed it The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin sometimes wrote letters to himself from a fictitious reader if it served to make a point (something I remember WORLD founder Joel Belz threatening to do in the early days when reader response some weeks ran frighteningly thin). Franklin succeeded, the paper grew, and one day became The Saturday Evening Post. His and other newspapers served such a valuable role in the founding of these United States that when George Washington signed an act creating a Postal Service in 1792, the law allowed for newspapers to be included in mail deliveries.

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Today print media is more endangered than ever, yet it gets fewer favors from the public or private sector. Consumers will take their news for free online. And rumors are circulating that another postal increase for magazines like WORLD is on the horizon. Last month Gannett, the nation's largest daily newspaper publisher and owner of flagship USA Today, announced a 3 percent cut in its work force nationwide. "Dead tree" journalism, they say, is itself dying.

But as one endangered print journalist to her readers, I say: Don't worry about me. Worry instead about you.

While the industry's decline is the tree everyone hears, what happens to the tree falling in the forest that no one hears? The news that cut-down newsrooms can no longer cover is news you won't know. That's why Michelle Malkin, a popular blogger who herself hands out news and perspective for free, recently highlighted the trend with an entry titled "Newspapers are dying. You should care."

Cuts and layoffs fall hardest on local beat reporters who in many ways form a backbone to all our civic understanding. Bloggers and other new media may step into some voids, but they rarely take on the vital but thankless assignments of sitting through a city council meeting, a zoning session, or a school board all-nighter. It's there that our dearest public money is spent, but it takes a paycheck and a pushy editor to get a reporter on the scene. And from there come stories with wider audiences.

Here are just a few: Detroit Free Press reporters Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick tracked down more than 14,000 text messages exchanged between Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his then chief of staff-exchanges that conflicted with sworn testimony in a civil trial whose settlement cost taxpayers more than $9 million. As a result of the reporters' series of articles earlier this year, Kilpatrick will be in court on charges this month and is now the subject of a wider FBI probe.

Or take Oakland, Calif., where Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, 57, was gunned down in broad daylight a year ago while investigating Your Black Muslim Bakery. Four men associated with the bakery are in jail, scheduled to appear in court for kidnapping, torture, and murder. Fellow journalists probing Bailey's death uncovered a video-tape showing bakery owners laughing and reenacting the murder, bragging that ties to the police department would keep them out of jail.

This is the work of journalists who know their territory. Today value the local news you have, and know that when you read your news for free you may be threatening your freedom to read it.

If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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