Who Will Keep the Sun Shining?

The news media’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week, which takes place March 10-16, has always called to mind the importance of access to government information, transparency of public records, and the idea that the free flow of information is an essential element of “good government.”

Created by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) in 2005, the event was timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of Founding Father James Madison, a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights.  It has always been envisioned as a celebration of the Freedom of Information Act signed into law on July 4, 1966, which outlined mandatory disclosure provisions for federal documents and records.

The focus on access to government information remains critical, not only at the federal level but at state and local levels as well.  In fact, the Associated Press has re-launched its “Sunshine Hub,” a digital tool to help its media clients track state legislation affecting access to public information – including legislative attempts to make certain information off limits or harder to access by the public.

In addition to this traditional emphasis on access to government information, however, the principal proponents of Sunshine Week (ASNE, AP, AP Media Editors, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press) have introduced a new focus this year: the loss or diminishment of local news coverage.

As ASNE notes: “Over the past 15 years, newspaper closures and consolidations have left more than 1,400 cities across the U.S. without their main source of regular local news,” citing an AP analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina.   

Writing about this trend in a special article for Sunshine Week, David Bauder and David A. Lieb suggest some possible causes: revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer lack of interest among readers – or maybe just reasons peculiar to given locales.

“While national outlets worry about a president who calls the press an enemy, many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died of cancer.  Local journalism is dying in plain sight,” Bauder and Lieb write.

There are no easy solutions to this problem.  Will local journalism be reduced to Facebook bloggers covering city council meetings?  Will websites providing community news take hold – and who will pay for them? 

Sunshine Week can’t give us the magic formula for sustaining local journalism.  But it can shine a light on this growing problem – and give us an opportunity to ponder the increasing difficulty of holding government officials accountable in an age of diminishing journalistic resources.

Richard T. Kaplar is President of The Media Institute.