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Commentary: Fewer newspapers means fewer watchdogs

Matt Pommer

The state budget drama continues to unfold in Madison. The decisions and the resulting fallout offer reminders of the importance of newspapers to a democracy.

Myriad spending items are crammed into hundreds of pages of what eventually will be the state’s budget.

Those decisions and the resulting fallout at the local level are unable to be told adequately via electronic media.

In 30 seconds, television and radio can tell you about a crime, an accident or even the legislative passage of a bill to ban smoking. Newspapers cover those, but budget details and what they mean require more time and research.

This is especially true in a time of reduced government spending. What do cuts in state aid mean to school districts? What services will be scaled back by county and local governments? Will social service spending be pinched?

Consider the decisions by the Madison Catholic Diocese to lay off workers and close a community center that for years had been providing meals, help and comfort to the poor. Elected officials, facing a tight budget, are scrambling to find an alternative.

Newspapers follow these stories over weeks and months. The process in Wisconsin starts in the Capitol. Part of the tradition is that the minority party will denounce secrecy and late-night meetings that prepared the budget for floor debate. Editors like to denounce secrecy, but the real challenge is to explain the details no matter how long it takes.

While the process in Madison remains the same, the size of the full-time Capitol press corps has declined by an estimated 55 percent over the last 25 years.

The American Journalism Review recently reported the number of newspaper reporters in state capitols declined by 32 percent in just the last six years. There were fewer full-time newspaper reporters in 44 state capitols.

Critics suggest online news services, including live coverage of press conferences, better informs people. It might entertain them better, but it does not inform them better about government.

Newspapers provide depth and are a record of government programs. Thomas Jefferson said newspapers were essential to democracy. Proof positive is how governments enact budgets.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

One comment

  1. It is sad to see any business in decline. However, don’t for a minute attempt to compare the newspapers of Thomas Jefferson’s day to what we have today. They have long ago, ceased publishing informative-driven objective news, and have instead chosen to publish agenda-driven news, intended to slant the readers point of view.
    If you want to find non-biased objective facts on what’s really going on, the last place you’ll find them are in the ‘main-stream media’ outlets.

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