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The American Colonies got their first taste of independent ink in 1690. That’s when the first multi-page newspaper was published in Boston. It lasted one issue. The Colonial government — still beholden to Britain — quickly shut it down and jailed the publisher.

From that shaky start newspapers went on to fan the flames of rebellion that led to the Revolutionary War. By the war’s end in 1783, more than 40 newspapers were being published. But high production costs and low literacy rates meant they were read mostly by the educated and affluent in society.

That changed in the 1800s with the growth of public education and the rise of the penny press. A shift to steam-powered printing presses made inexpensive, mass production possible. Benjamin Day’s New York Sun led the way by charging one cent per paper.

Others soon followed, making the news affordable for the working classes. Newsies hawked papers on the streets shouting “Read all about it!”, and America settled in for a long love affair with newspapers.

Publishers in the penny press era weren’t always bastions of responsible journalism.

Benjamin Day used the phrase “blood and tears” to describe the sensationalism that appealed to the tastes of his New York Sun readers. His rival, James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, fed his readers a steady diet of crime, scandal and tragedy. “If no immediate murder was at hand, a grisly one from the past was revived and described again,” wrote James L. Crouthamel, in his history of the Herald. This style of news reporting came to be known as “yellow journalism.”

William Randolph Hearst once had the San Francisco Examiner cover a hotel fire by sending a full crew by train to the scene. As told in Daniel Cohen’s book, “Yellow Journalism,” the Examiner produced a 14-page special edition with the hair-raising headline: “HUNGRY, FRANTIC FLAMES Leaping Higher, Higher, Higher, With Desperate Desire Running Madly Riotous Through Cornice, Archway and Facade. Rushing In Upon The Trembling Guests With Savage Fury.”

They didn’t underplay it.

But over the decades, as circulation increased among all social classes, newspapers changed. The excesses gave way to more factual reporting. A milestone came when a Commission on Freedom of the Press chaired by Robert M. Hutchins issued a report in 1947 that found a “socially responsible” free press is necessary for a liberal democracy. The Hutchins Commission urged the industry to self-regulate.

Newspapers adopted codes of ethics with clear guidelines for news gathering and reporting. As one media guide puts it: “The most important values of a journalist are truthfulness, impartiality, independence of commercial and political interests and responsibility.” A reporter can write commentary and have opinions, but these must be done separately from news writing.

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By the early 20th century, presses were cranking out more than 2,000 dailies and 14,000 weeklies. Circulation continued to rise, peaking in 1984 when daily newspapers in the U.S. had a combined circulation of 63,340,000, according to Pew Research Center.

After a period of relative stability, the industry began to shrink in the late 1990s and early 2000s, primarily due to the explosive growth of the internet. With print circulation and advertising revenue on the decline, newspapers adapted by becoming digital media companies.

But while news websites, mobile apps and digital newsletters are reaching more people than ever, digital advertising brings in far less revenue than print advertising.

The result is that local newspapers are struggling. Many have ceased operation, while others have lost so much staff they’ve become ghosts of their former selves. A growing number of communities — especially in rural areas — no longer have a local paper. They’ve become news deserts.

The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media defines “news desert” as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

Throughout all of its history, one main mission of newspapers has been to hold public officials accountable. For communities in a news desert, there’s no watchdog journalism left, no written outlets to report on government and hold powerful people in check. The results are predictable. PEN America, an advocacy group for free expression, did several case studies of news deserts in 2019, and reached this conclusion:

“As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”

Added to that, Americans are losing something essential for democracy — a shared core of belief. Again, PEN America: “At a time when political polarization is growing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared baseline of facts on the issues that most directly affect Americans is more essential than ever.”

Yellow journalism of the penny press days waned because the public wanted something better. Readers wanted to be better informed. Eventually, newspapers delivered and democracy won.

In a media landscape filled with ghost newspapers, online misinformation and government officials who don’t want their actions questioned, readers can’t win. And neither can democracy.

Robert Saunders can be reached at bsaunders@hdmediallc.com.

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