The cheapening of democracy
With apologies to Charles Dickens, this weekend’s convention of Kansas Press Association near Mulvane offered both the best of times and the worst of times.
And none of those times had anything to do with the gambling floor of host site Kansas Star Casino, which attendees avoided like the cesspool of human ignorance and greed that it too often can be.
Among the attendees were stalwart warriors, courageously fighting the good fight of trying to keep their communities alive by shining light on shady dealings, attempting to stir all-too-often apathetic community members into reclaiming their government from the foolishness and secrecy of self-styled cliques that squander money and fail to create vibrant economies their communities deserve.
Also among the attendees were refugees from past such efforts — the handful of journalists remaining after greedy, soulless corporations gobbled up their newspapers, sold the papers’ real estate, fired most of the staff, filled remaining pages with anything but local news, and shifted control away from the community supposedly being served.
At one table was the entire news staff of a once-proud daily that used to be the voice of most of western Kansas — a single woman, probably in her 60s.
Her paper’s stories used to provoke change. Its editorials changed minds. Its endorsements swayed elections. Now it has just one news staff member, who also acts as quasi-receptionist.
She sends her work to an editor at an anonymous location in Oklahoma. The pages of her paper are designed in Texas. She’s forbidden even to proofread those pages — despite her pointing out that designers five times misspelled the name of her town in headlines.
Once in a while, she gets help from the staff of a sister publication, another legendary daily, the news staff of which has been reduced to two. Most of the time, however, she’s on her own. And that’s not because of economic or technological changes.
Even with the popularity of the web and social media, her paper — unlike metropolitan dailies — remained impactful and profitable —not quite as much as in its heyday, but still a potent enterprise — until a succession of corporations began sweeping in and picking its carcass dry.
Local newspapers aren’t the only businesses facing such challenges. Grocers now are beset by soulless dollar stores that hire much fewer employees, sell poorer quality items, undercut prices on high-markup items, and refuse to sell many staples that grocers used to offer at cost or below cost in hope of recovering the expense of serving their community by also selling a few higher-markup items.
News deserts and food deserts too often are the result of communities that fail to see the consequences of always seeking the cheapest products they can find.
There’s nothing illegal about how mega-corporations have swooped in with cheaper products, the provision of which also cheapens the community buying them by depriving it of businesses vested in its future and willing to provide career paths so the best and brightest need not flee to other locales.
The problem is that interpreting our system of free market economy as being one of anything goes results in a sort of social Darwinism in which a community creates its own death spiral.
The Record and other locally owned and operated businesses continue to fight that trend but are arriving at an inflection point as skyrocketing prices that local businesses pay are becoming harder and harder to absorb.
A nearby weekly recently pointed out that its paper costs more than $3 per copy to produce. Ours does, too. Yet we charge only $1 — and have done so for literally decades, without change.
Postal rates the Record pays will rise another 20% next month. Printing costs are skyrocketing as well. At some point, the Record will be forced to charge more — though not the $144 a year that the nearby weekly will be charging and certainly not using their newfound scheme, like that of streaming media services, of silently charging credit or debit cards every month until the customer specifically forbids them to do so.
The main thing keeping us from having to take such drastic steps is continued support of advertisers, including local communities that publish full legal notices — which also help keep the public informed.
Thank those businesses and governmental offices for helping make this newspaper affordable, and avoid the temptation of going super-cheap by relying instead on alternatives severely lacking in the local news necessary to make our democracy work.
Now is a time not to retrench and blindly accept that government and communities have spun out of control but rather to do such things as attend Monday evening’s session, mentioned in a news story and advertisement this week, about openness in government.
We’ll try to stave off the wolves of rising prices and rising levels of government secrecy as long as we can. We hope you’ll be willing to join the fight. After all, it’s your rights and civic engagement that we’re fighting to maintain.
— ERIC MEYER