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Editorial

Newspapers’ existential crisis

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In 1996, Hewlett House, on East Rockaway Road, across from Hewlett High School, was a dilapidated farmhouse, long empty and fast rotting. The Hewlett-Woodmere School District, which owned it, planned to demolish the 300-year-old structure to make way for a parking lot.

Then the Nassau Herald started reporting on the historic home’s plight. Bruce Blakeman, then the Nassau County Legislature’s presiding officer and now a Town of Hempstead councilman, stepped in and brokered a deal to restore the farmhouse as a breast cancer resource center. It is now owned by the county and run by the nonprofit organization 1 in 9.

In 2001, the Village of Freeport’s Power Plant No. 2, in south Freeport, was an aging facility that belched untold amounts of unfiltered diesel exhaust into surrounding neighborhoods in the village and nearby Merrick. Residents said they feared the plant was a cause of the area’s apparently high rate of unusual cancers.

The Merrick Herald reported the story, which eventually grew to 44 parts and 60,000 words. Then State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. and Richard Kessel, who was chairman of the Long Island Power Authority at the time, brokered a deal among Freeport, LIPA and the state to permanently shut down the village’s old, polluting generators and build a new $50 million natural gas plant, with modern technology to prevent exhaust from raining down on local neighborhoods. It opened in 2005 and was recently updated.

These are but two examples of the work newspapers have done over the years. We could go on citing the good they have done for the residents of this county, the state and the nation, but you get the idea.

Imagine for a minute if there were no newspapers, which for nearly three centuries have acted as our country’s watchdogs, reporting on social inequity and rooting out government malfeasance. Surely our nation would be poorer — both financially and psychically — if not for newspapers.

They are the bedrock of our democracy. The founders wrote press freedom into the First Amendment for a reason: They understood that government needed a check to prevent the nation’s leaders from becoming despots. Ever since, newspapers have acted as such.

Today, however, newspapers are under attack from two sides — a president who labels hard-working journalists “enemies of the people” and the financial constraints of an increasingly internet-based economy.

Leaving the president’s vitriol aside, here’s the core of the problem: Most folks believe that news organizations, including newspapers, are thriving financially, or at least making ends meet, according to Pew Research Center polling. The real numbers tell a different story, however. The estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2017 was 31 million on weekdays and 34 million on Sundays, down 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively, from the previous year, according to Pew.

The existential crisis newspapers now face isn’t confined to the U.S. In 2017, the government of Canada commissioned a report speculating what the nation might look like if all newspapers were to fold. Last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May warned that the potential death of newspapers was a “danger to democracy.”

Indeed, it is. Without The Washington Post to report so assiduously on Watergate, where would the nation have been during the scandal that eventually led to President Nixon’s downfall? On Sept. 11, 2001, where would the nation have been without The New York Times to disseminate fact-based reporting to a frightened and mourning nation?

Google and Facebook have robbed newspapers of billions of dollars in ad revenues. According to the News Media Alliance, Google made $4.7 billion from news content — almost as much as every news organization combined in the U.S. — yet Google itself produces no news. None.

Recent legislation proposed in Congress — the Journalism Preservation and Competition Act — would allow news organizations to bypass anti-trust laws to collectively bargain as an industry against Google and Facebook for a share of the profits they make off the news.

Fair is fair. Congress should act on this legislation.

At the same time, newspapers, if they are to survive, need subscribers and advertisers — paying customers. Google and Facebook attract online viewers with promises of free. Producing news content — the investigations that matter to people’s lives — is costly, however. That’s why the newspaper industry needs all of your support if it is to survive.

Thank you for reading.