by Mary Coltrane and Dee Anne Finken
News of the police raid at the Marion County Record in Marion, Kansas, on Aug. 11 ignited outrage across the nation. Similarly newsworthy was the announcement days later by the county’s top prosecutor, Joel Ensey, that he had insufficient evidence to justify the search or seizure of the newspaper’s property or material.
Few of us know much about what happens in Marion County, an hour and a half southwest of Topeka and home to fewer than 12,000 people. The last time national attention focused on that section of Kansas was in 2010, over construction of the controversial Keystone Pipeline.
Condemnation of the raid by news organizations and free-press advocates is understandable. But beyond the police action, the events of the past week or so should also remind us of the vital role local newspapers play throughout the country, serving us all.
Marion County’s oldest newspaper, the Record has seen a number of owners, publishers, and name changes in its 154-year lifetime. With a newsroom across the street from the Marion County Courthouse, it provides a weekly accounting of the regional administration of justice. Both its print and online pages keep readers informed about decisions by elected officials, developments in the schools, and the ups and downs of local business, like recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of a local furniture store and an area dairy’s award-winning cheese.
Why does this matter?
In the past 15 years, for a variety of reasons, a quarter of local newspapers across the nation have gone out of business; if the trend continues, we’ll have lost one-third by 2025. Washington has lost more than a fifth of its local newspapers and more than two-thirds of their newsroom staff members.
Research by the League of Women Voters of Washington and others tells us local newspapers are crucial to healthy communities. “The Decline of Local News and Its Impact on Democracy,” which the League published earlier this year, along with reports by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and others, have linked the loss of a community’s newspaper with higher government costs, reduced voter participation, a reduction in the number of candidates vying for local office, increased political polarization, and less-effective public health campaigns.
When they are robust and independent, local newspapers also fulfill the vital role of watchdogs, keeping an eye on the work of government and politicians, allowing the rest of us to sleep more soundly.
The League of Women Voters is dedicated to defending democracy and empowering voters. Local news is essential to this enterprise.
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