There might very well be a winner in this time of newspaper downsizing.
Sinister people in government are rejoicing. For the last five years, they have enjoyed operating out of public view.
Newspaper reporters, editors and owners are not frequently fighting the open government and access battles. If truth is the first casualty of war, then the First Amendment is the first casualty when newspapers bleed.
And because of the electronic collection and categorization of government records, this is the worst time for the fourth estate to crumble in its support of the First Amendment. If newspapers won’t fight now, they might never get access to information that is vital to the democracy.
Since the time of John Milton, writers have argued for the right to collect information, disseminate it to the public and comment fairly on it. And since the time of Milton, journalists have been going to court to fight with governments who would rather operate in secret and without critique. (Milton spend about a year in jail for suggesting freedom had its advantages over rule of the monarchy.)
The battles grew to bonfires in the late 1900s, perhaps spurred by the Pentagon Paper heavyweight bout between the White House and The New York Times. Watergate poured fuel. And soon, there were dozens of journalism awards for waging the First Amendment battles. (My little newspaper in Albuquerque spent around $100,000 fighting for access to documents that helped our reporter, Eileen Welsome, win a Pulitzer for disclosing how the government experimented on citizens in the 1940s and 1950s by injecting them with plutonium.) It became a sacred duty of every newspaper to shine light in dark corners of government.
While there is scant quantifiable evidence to prove it, the threat of a newspaper access suit made government officials operate under the assumption that “someone will find out.” Many a mayor or city manager told me so during my 25 years as an editor. The former district attorney in Ventura County (Calif.) said he built time and money in his budget to oppose the access suits my paper would bring against his office.
But as the economic wheel turned so did the access suits. Again, there are no quantifiable studies that I can find but Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition told me that it’s hard to find a newspaper willing to hurt its profit margin by fighting an access suit. “It’s now considered discretionary spending,” Scheer said. Speeches at this year’s Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press awards dinner back that up.
It is a courageous editor or publisher when faced with a declining margin who is willing to spend $25,000 to $50,000 to fight the local city council over payroll records. (Not that such people aren’t out there. There just are not as many.)
And Scheer said this is a particularly treacherous time to retrench. The government is collecting ever-more data electronically. Much of it teeters closely to invading the privacy of citizens.
This is a paradox of our time. Because of easy access to online information, reporters have more information at their fingertips than ever before. But because of the skills of government IT people and the hunger for local government to make revenue off the data, much of it is being hidden.
Scheer said the California FAC recently won a case against Orange County in which the government attempted to keep private data collected on a geographic information system. This is a format that would enable the county government to analyze the data about Orange County citizens and possibly resell it to businesses. FAC argued that the data belonged to the public and it won.
But think about the other types of data that government could bury behind a paywall—civil filings, bankruptcies, real estate transactions, foreclosure sales—that might provide it with a revenue source. At a time when this data ought to be easier than ever to access, local governments are hiding it and selling it.
The squeeze on newspaper companies is not likely to ease anytime soon. So owners, publishers and editors need to make a decision and take a stand. If first amendment and access battles are important, they must become part of the expense budget. At the very least, newspapers need to contribute annually to state organizations (where they exist) that collectively fight the battles.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.