Journalism: The Lifeblood of Democracy
When I flew across the Atlantic as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, I was optimistic about what I would find on the continent. I have been profoundly obsessed with the woeful state of local media in the United States for a while now, and I work every day to build my local news startup and coach other local news outlets to grow their own audiences and their financial stability.
For some reason, when it came to local journalism, I thought Europeans would be doing better than us Americans. They are not. When it came to democracy, I thought Europe was doing better than us, too. With the disaster of Brexit, the rise of authoritarian leaders across Eastern Europe, and the coalescing of far-right political groups in France, Germany, and Italy, that is now also debatable. It may not be causation (yet), but the correlation is there: As local journalism dies, democracy itself begins to asphyxiate.
A week in the United Kingdom illustrated how local journalism's disappearance leads directly to uninformed decisions.
A week in the United Kingdom illustrated how local journalism's disappearance leads directly to uninformed decisions. Sheffield, a former mining and steel city in the north of England, voted to leave the European Union. But as we toured its Advanced Manufacturing Centre, home to research facilities, apprenticeship programs, and a high-tech factory, we grew more confused. Every building had a tiny plaque that indicated it had been built with funding from the EU, yet many in Sheffield had not connected EU membership with their city's new future as an advanced manufacturing hub.
At the Sheffield Sun newspaper, we heard that a grant from a local news reporting network had placed one reporter on the ground to cover every city council and planning meeting, but the newsroom as a whole had been hollowed out. Only a handful of journalists are still employed in this city of 500,000, and the residents’ general understanding of what the United Kingdom gains from European collaboration has decreased. It does not seem like a coincidence.
As resources for local journalism dwindle, apathy festers. In Serbia, where the average take-home salary is $400 per month, the poverty of economic circumstances and opportunities created an atmosphere where ordinary citizens detach from the complex realities of politics. A brave local investigative outfit, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, posts reports of corruption and incompetence by officials, but the government rarely shows accountability, or even awareness, of their abuses of power. There is no outrage; only reality television.
Without journalism, democracy becomes something else. The name might be the same, but the spirit of the idea disappears. That lesson hit home in Turkey, where hundreds of journalists and academics have been jailed for opposing the consolidation of political powers under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. We dined with a journalist who had spent 10 months in jail for speaking out against Erdoğan’s regime. Branded a terrorist, his passport has been confiscated and his reputation and livelihood destroyed.
The country's major media publications are now owned by Erdoğan allies. Turkey's civil society leaders say these outlets are propaganda rags for the regime: "You'll find the same headlines in each newspaper written exactly the same way." Despite some losses in Turkey's recent local elections, Erdogan's AK Party still believes it acts with a democratic mandate from voters. Is it any wonder they hold that mandate when the act of dissent lands its opponents in prison?
In Serbia, in Hungary, in Turkey, in Bulgaria, and all across the continent, authoritarian and illiberal governments grow in power and influence. If we want to contain their strength, one obvious solution is to support as many quality, independent journalists across Europe as we possibly can. To fund them—without influence, meddling, or strings attached—so they can speak truth to power and capture life, not as talking points from a propaganda machine, but as it truly is today. To underwrite their legal defenses when they are arrested. And to shout from the rooftops with our collective global outrage when these reporters are threatened for the act of speaking truth.
Funding journalism is not the only solution to cure Europe's democratic woes, but, without it, Europe may not have many democratic governments left to defend.
Ashley Catherine Woods is a Detroit-based journalist and advocate for solutions to help sustain local news. She is the founder of Detour, a local news startup launching in Detroit in 2018, which recently won a spot in The Information's first accelerator for subscription media companies. Woods is also a 2018 Knight Visiting Neiman Fellow at Harvard University. Before startup life, she led digital strategy and consumer experience at the Detroit Free Press.
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