For much of our national history, newspapers were the exclusive form of political and governmental media. Citizens who wanted to reach decisionmakers through the press had to work through newspaper reporters. But times have changed. The sustained influence of broadcast sources, and the more recent explosion of new/social media, has significantly altered the media landscape.
Despite these changes, the newspaper industry has adopted new business models to help daily print journalism survive. Many papers have emphasized their presence on the Internet and on social media sites, and with good reason. Digital impressions and advertising offer possible new revenue streams. And in the same way that Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money is," newspapers are shifting online because that's where potential future generations of newspaper readers exist.
Print reporters are also making more of an effort to converse with their readers on social media. A December 2015 study from assistant professor Mi Rosie Jahng of Hope College and assistant professor Jeremy Littau of Lehigh University found that, among younger readers, "journalists who interact with their followers are seen as more credible and rated more positively than journalists who use Twitter solely to disseminate news and information." That may be why much of the Tallahassee press corps spends a good chunk of each day communicating in 140 characters or less.
We should all hope these revitalization efforts flourish, because newspapers are a crucial force for holding government accountable. Think of how Lucy Morgan of the Tampa Bay Times unearthed the story of the "Taj Mahal" — a $50 million courthouse for which legislators and judges buried funding in an appropriations bill at a time when budget-challenged courts across Florida were cutting staff. Remember how Miami Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch revealed the heartbreaking tragedy that hundreds of children died of abuse or neglect due to problems in Florida's child welfare system. Note how Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeff Burlew has spent the last year chronicling the decline in Florida State Employees' Charitable Campaign contributions since its management was outsourced to a private company in 2012 — via contracts that have allowed that company to take much of the increasingly limited FSECC funds in six-figure annual fees.
Without newspapers and their diligent reporters, these kinds of stories impacting taxpayers might never come to light. But as Chris Hand and I write in our new book — America, the Owner's Manual: You Can Fight City Hall — and Win — newspapers are also vital to citizens looking to make public officials respond to their advocacy. They offer several great advantages to citizens trying to communicate a message.
The first is credibility. Newspapers are often seen as the medium most likely to "get it right" in terms of accuracy of reporting and fairness to their subjects. A comprehensive newspaper account will help to validate a citizen initiative in the eyes of decisionmakers, possible coalition partners, potential donors and other journalists.
Another advantage is breadth of coverage. Newspaper reporters have comparatively more room to provide a comprehensive account of the issue in question. Although the facts citizens gather in support of their initiative will be helpful to any reporter, they are much more likely to see those facts published in a newspaper that has the space to print them.
Additionally, newspapers often shape other types of news coverage. Television and radio news directors often base their decisions on where to send their reporters on national, state and local newspaper headlines. A front-page story can produce a ripple effect across other media outlets in a community.
President Thomas Jefferson said it best: "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." We are fortunate to live in a country where newspapers still check government and give citizens an outlet for their views and advocacy goals.
Bob Graham served as Florida's governor from 1979 to 1987 and as U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005. He and Chris Hand are the co-authors of "America, the Owner's Manual: You Can Fight City Hall — and Win."