Pressing On: Why Local News Matters 

After I spread The Commercial Appeal on my kitchen table Tuesday morning, the first thing I read was reporter Daniel Connolly's story on Criminal Court Judge Jim Lammey, who, it appears, is quite the racist. Lammey posted articles on Facebook that called Muslims "foreign mud," criticized the school "integration craze," and said, Jews should "get the f—k over the Holocaust."

Connolly reported that Lammey shared numerous articles and memes of this sort on his Facebook page. Lammey said he accidentally switched his posts to public. Oops. Just the kind of guy you want making decisions about immigrants, right? Which, among other things, is exactly what Lammey does. He did say his best friend was Jewish, so there's that. Go read the story. It's nauseating.

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This is the part where I tell you that if it weren't for a local journalist doing some solid reporting, I wouldn't have known any of this. And if you didn't read the CA, you wouldn't have known about it either, until you read this column. The larger point being, stories like this one are why local journalism matters, now more than ever. Without journalists, those who hold public office can get away with just about anything — with your taxpayer dollars picking up the tab.

For another example, read Jackson Baker's column this week on how fallout from the state's absurd school-voucher bill could impact Shelby County's 2020 budget. Where else can you find reporting from someone who spends a couple of days a week in Nashville covering the legislative clown show, then returns to Memphis to cover the county commission? Nowhere but the Memphis Flyer.

There's also fine local reporting coming from The Daily Memphian website, and at several local nonprofit reporting organizations. They're all important. They're all vital to a well-informed citizenry. Give them your support and your money (cough, support.memphisflyer.com). It's a small amount compared to what a couple of crooked officials can cost you, or a boondoggle geared to a politically connected developer, or, well, you name it. There are any number of ways those in power can quietly utilize public funds for mischief.

It's the press' job to keep that mischief in check by bringing it into the light, which is why a report from the Governing.com website this week is so troubling. As the report states: "One in five Americans now lacks regular access to local media coverage. Studies show this is bad for politics, municipal debt — and even the environment."

In 2018, more than 2,000 journalists lost their jobs, a trend that has been ongoing for more than a decade: "... newspaper closures and declining coverage of state and local government in general have led to more partisan polarization, fewer candidates running for office, higher municipal borrowing costs, and increased pollution."

That's a hell of a laundry list. More from the report: "Since 2004, some 1,800 newspapers have closed entirely. ... In many other places, newspapers are 'ghosts' of their former selves. ... Nearly half the counties in the U.S. have only one newspaper."

And as local media coverage dies, the void gets filled by national news and opinion, most of it spread through social media; that's all those links to politically charged stories that appear on your friends' Facebook pages. And that means we are becoming less informed about local issues — the ones that affect us the most — and less engaged with local government. The corollary is that we're more engaged with national issues, which has led to more political polarization — why you now get in internet fights with that guy you used to like in high school.

Making matters worse is the fact that more and more people (including nine out of 10 Republicans!) don't trust the media. The mantra of "Fake News!" is taking its toll. And we're all the worse for it.

But no matter how often a certain president says it, the press is not "the enemy of the people." Quite the contrary. America's Founding Fathers made freedom of the press a part of the First Amendment, and there's a reason it was the first. An uneducated and uninformed public is more vulnerable to demagoguery and more easily manipulated. So, please support your local press. It's more important now than our forefathers could ever have imagined.

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