Will the rise of nonprofit news outlets help fill a gap in Pa. journalism? | Opinion

May 15, 2019 6:30 am

By Fletcher McClellan and Kayla Gruber

WASHINGTON — Boasting both a Pennsylvania Avenue address and an impressive view of the U.S. Capitol dome, the Newseum is an inspiring tribute to freedom of the press.

The First Amendment is carved in stone on the building’s exterior. Inside, seven stories of glass walls and open-air exhibits offer countless hours of captivation for all generations.

It’s also going out of business at the end of the year.

Saddled with debt, the foundation that owns the center will sell the building to Johns Hopkins University, which will make it the headquarters for its Washington-based degree programs.

Right now, no one knows where the museum’s exhibits and 6,000 artifacts will go.

It is too easy to make the demise of the Newseum a metaphor for the distressed status of the news business, but there are parallels.

To make ends meet, the Newseum charged an admission fee of $25 in a city where many attractions are free.

The fate of the Newseum could be viewed as a metaphor for the contractions that have wracked American journalism since the birth of the internet.

Many print outlets have gone digital. But the revenues from paywalls and digital advertising have not replaced the money generated by print advertising. Most digital ad growth is going to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Since 2004, 1,800 newspapers have closed, according to a University of North Carolina study, leaving 200 counties in the U.S. without a paper and nearly one-half of all counties with only one print outlet.

Online services have closed some of the gap, but not by nearly enough. In Pennsylvania, around 80 newspapers have shut down since 2004, replaced by 19 new online news enterprises.

The consequences of living in a news desert are profound. In places without a newspaper or where newspaper competition has evaporated, voter turnout in local elections is lower, citizens are less knowledgeable and engaged politically, and local governments spend more money.

On top of its economic troubles, the news media face greater threats from government.

Another prominent Newseum display is a colored world map showing the state of press freedom in each country, with green-colored lands having extensive press freedom.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of green on the map.

Even though the U.S. remains a haven for independent journalism, it is ranked only 48th among nations on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Make no mistake, the American news media are under attack, accused of being the “enemy of the people” and producing “fake news.” Only one-quarter of a national poll sample say they have considerable confidence in the media.

Increasingly, reporters are targets of online trolling and death threats.

Of course, no one goes into the news business to win popularity contests. If the media are doing their jobs — holding powerful leaders and institutions accountable — condemnation is to be expected.

There is some reason for hope in Pennsylvania. Just in the last two years, digital outlets devoted to rigorous coverage of statewide politics and policy were created, including the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, PA Post, The Caucus, and a new venture for investigative journalism, Spotlight PA.

Nationally, a market for prestige journalism has emerged, as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal have expanded their news-gathering operations.

We will find out soon enough whether a serious news market also exists in the Keystone State.

If it does, we suggest that the Newseum make Philadelphia its new home, preferably near the printing house of Benjamin Franklin, America’s first great newspaperman.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pa. Kayla Gruber is a 2018 political science graduate of Elizabethtown College.

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