America is still a nation of small towns. There are over 19,500 incorporated cities in the United States with 76 percent – 14,782 – with fewer than 5,000 people, according to the U.S. Census. There are 1,669 cities with between 5,000 and 10,000 people bringing the total under 10,000 to 84.4 percent of the country’s cities.
You would think with such an overwhelming majority of the nation’s cities small towns that they would be a dominant political force able to have considerable impact on the laws enacted in
state legislatures and Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and our influences are dwindling with each passing year.
While small-town America has the number in cities, it is the metropolitan areas that have the population.
“Urban areas make up only 3% of the entire land area of the country but are home to more than 80% of the population,” the Census reports.
“Conversely, 97% of the country’s land mass is rural, but only 19.3% of the population lives there.”
These numbers have a profound impact on the information we all have, and will have access to in the future, that enable us to be involved and informed citizens. A recent University of North Carolina study found that since 2004, 1,800 newspapers had disappeared in America – 1,700 of the community weekly newspapers.
In the metropolitan areas of America, there is a relatively rich media culture with commercial television stations, public radio and television stations, internet web sites devoted to covering both the urban region and communities within it, and daily newspapers.
A vibrant community newspaper can mean the difference between a healthy community and one that is poorer, more divisive, less informed, and more open to corruption.
In Healthy communities:
- Residents are connected by the stories of their families, neighbors, schools, local governments, religious institutions, health care facilities, social organizations, and the business community.
- Its citizens are aware of what is happening and encouraged and motivated to participate in making their communities a better place to live and work.
- Connected communities create a sense of belonging. Living in a connected community is nurturing, inclusive and rewarding. Connected communities give their citizens a sense of common purpose that binds them together to face challenges.
- Citizens are knowledgeable about who their elected officials are, what they are doing, and how to influence their decisions for the betterment of the residents of a community.
- Residents inspired to make improvements and address failings in their communities.
- Are empowered by the information newspapers provide to hold those in power accountable.
- Citizens have a trusted source of information with the authority to challenge power; the knowledge of the laws that protect a citizen’s right to attend meetings and access to the information elected officials study to make their decisions; the financial strength to go to court, if necessary, to protect the rights of citizens; and thereach within a community to ensure that public officials know that news of their actions will be widely disseminated among the electorate.
In towns across America, it is the local newspaper that provides these essentials that create an informed and healthy community.
There is no substitute that replaces what is lost when a community newspaper disappears.
In Unhealthy Communities
What happens in communities that are not informed by a common, trusted source of information a newspaper provides? Studies have found that:
- Fewer people vote.
- Fewer people run for office.
- Fewer people volunteer to serve on boards and commissions,
- Interest rates go up for bonding because the investors know that when the government watchdog is gone, there is a greater likelihood of financial malfeasance.
- Citizens become less connected to their community.
- Citizens know less about the challenges their communities face. Not knowing those challenges could lead to a steady decline in the quality of life, resident safety and the economic vitality of the community.
- People in the community become more self-interested and less community-minded, resulting in less motivation to work together as a community to get important things done.
- Communities without newspapers are more polarized.
- Environmental laws get rolled back with little attention or outrage.
- Local governments can levy for millions of dollars on construction projects voters do not support. If the newspaper isn’t covering the meetings and writing the stories, decisions would be made without citizens given the opportunity to raise questions.
- Citizens lack the information they need to make decisions on bonding proposals, whether it is for their children’s education or the expansion of broadband to rural communities.
- Public officials deceive citizens on their right to attend an open meeting, or their right to review public documents.
- Citizens don’t know who is running for office, or what they would stand for if elected.
- Citizens don’t know if their elected officials are serving their interests, or cheating them; if they are diligent, or derelict in their duties.
- Open meeting laws and data practices access would be curtailed, hiding vital information from citizens.
In the digital world, people can know more about what is happening in the world than they do about what is happening in their backyards. However, it is what is happening out the back door that has the greatest impact on our daily lives.
Reed Anfinson is Publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News, Benson, Minn, and President National Newspaper Association Foundation.