The Tennessee Journal’s current issue has a lengthy analysis on the decline in political influence of Tennessee newspapers.
Meanwhile, Frank Gibson, who heads the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, has written a piece for the Tennessee Press Association under the headline, “In Legislature, target was on the backs of newspapers.”
The Journal piece begins thusly:
It used to be accepted political wisdom that one should never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. But in the 2011 legislative session, state lawmakers were quite willing to take on the newspaper industry.
Some of the fights involved access to public records, and some pertained to public notices, an important source of advertising revenue for papers big and small. Bills of both sorts have been common in recent years.
What was unusual this year was the volume. Newspapers found themselves in multiple battles. Among the threats to transparency and prosperity were proposals to deny public records to parties suing the government and let local governments publish notices on the Internet.
In the end, most but not all of the bills either failed, were deferred, or passed with amendments that made them more palatable to the industry. Some of the fights, and likely new ones, will wait until 2012.
A common explanation for the rash of bills is the big Republican takeover. Republicans, it is theorized, are less friendly to the media because they perceive the media, sometimes accurately, as less friendly to them than to Democrats. Thus, they turned their fire on newspapers in the same way they shot at the Tennessee Education Association, though on a much smaller scale.
Reasons for newspaper loss of political clout listed range from decline in number of newspapers and readership to fallout over media pushing for open government and corporate ownership of papers as opposed to the past tendency toward them being owned and operated by local folks well plugged into the community.
Jackson Baker has reproduced a couple of charts on newspaper circulation decline from the Journal article and thrown in some of his own commentary HERE.
Gibson’s TPA piece is reproduced below.
In legislature, the target was on backs of newspapers
By Frank Gibson
Remember Spiro Agnew’s fiery speeches about the “nattering nabobs of negativism?” The ballroom curtain would open, exposing the giant CBS logo, and the hulking Agnew would toss a dart into the giant CBS eye. Cheering partisans would roar with approval.
Remember Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” and how he used all of the powers at his disposal to keep The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers? And later, during the Senate hearings, efforts to cover up the “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate, when Tennessee’s Sen. Howard Baker asked the classic “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
Agnew was subsequently indicted for political corruption and run out of office. His old boss, Nixon, was forced out in disgrace because he abused the powers bestowed on him by the American people.
The just-ended session of the Tennessee General Assembly caused more than a little déjà vu. It gave me a distinct feeling that government is becoming populated with people with no respect for history. Maybe they don’t know it.
This time the target was on the backs of newspapers. In some cases, the hostilities were directed at specific newspapers. In others, it was the entire newspaper industry of the state, as local and state politicians devised ways to throttle the press for what they perceive as slights of the past.
Partisans in the new House majority made no secret of their belief that hitting newspapers in the pocketbook would let them get even for what they believe were slights of the past, real or imagined.
At last count, seven bills were introduced to remove public notices from newspapers or reduce them greatly. One would have cut election notices in half to save money.
We heard sentiments like: “The press is a giant, unregulated monopoly.” One Northeast Tennessee lawmaker said during committee debate on reducing foreclosure notices that public notice advertising “is a government-mandated subsidy of newspapers.” He challenged fellow committee members by conjecturing that if they didn’t vote to reduce the notices it was because they were “afraid” of newspapers.
“I ain’t afraid of ’em,” one member chimed in.
Some assaults were more overt than others.
Two bills proposed to take all government public notices out of newspapers in Knox and Hamilton counties and put them on local government websites. In one case, local government officials, upset over aggressive news coverage, asked their state lawmakers to bring the legislation. In the other, a local state senator was more than slightly irritated at how the local paper had covered some of his antics.
Instead of going away in the face of documented evidence that 80,000 households in those cities don’t even own a computer, the bills were referred to “summer study.” Both bills tried to get the legislature on record as supporting the change with this commentary, suggesting the demise of newspapers:
“WHEREAS, there has been a steady decline in newspaper readership in the past several decades, while, at the same time there has been an increase in the number of households with access to the Internet;
“WHEREAS, many legal notices published solely in newspapers go unread and unnoticed by the public because casual newspaper readers generally do not read the legal notices section;
“WHEREAS, permitting the publication of legal notices on an official government website will make those notices more easily accessible to a greater number of people, thereby promoting increased public participation in government; now therefore….”
The last “whereas” got the purpose of public notices – sunshine and others – right, at least: to “make” information accessible to “a greater number of people.”
Research shows clearly that two to three times more people in those two cities read newspapers than look at local government websites, and the ratios go even higher when you add the number of “unique visits” to newspaper websites.
Politicians don’t like to have their power challenged – or questioned – particularly when they abuse that power or otherwise misbehave. The sponsor of four bills attacking newspapers is a freshman Republican senator whose car was photographed parked on a public sidewalk near the Capitol. He had abandoned it there because he was tardy for a House session.
He tried to do what other politicians, including Nixon and Agnew, did. Try to kill the messenger. Reflecting back on those sad days of Watergate, two things stand out: journalism schools filled to overflowing, and public opinion polls showed that Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.