The true value of your local newspaper

Published 6:52 pm Thursday, January 3, 2019

So what’s the value of a newspaper? You’d think that could be answered with something about the net worth of the paper, the presses, the capital, and the hardworking editors, writers and staff. And there’s the benefit of information and literacy to the community. But the watchdog role the media plays translates into additional advantages you might not have thought about.

Believe it or not, scholars have wrestled with that for a long time. Robert Picard and Stephen Lacy sought to determine what a newspaper was worth when there was a rash of thefts of such dailies in the 1990s. Historic newspapers can be worth a lot, if you take a spin around eBay.

Jin Won Park, Yasuyuki Takahata, Toshio Kajiuchi, Takashi Akehata found another value for the paper and print in their article “Effects of nonionic surfactant on enzymatic hydrolysis of used newspaper,” published in Biotechnology and Bioengineering. Even after writing for 14 years, I didn’t guess that one.

As newspapers have declined somewhat in circulation, it hasn’t helped adult literacy, which has remained stagnant over the past 25 years. The U.S. is now seventh in the world in literacy rates, and that’s from a measure that looks at several variables other than the overused “test score” measures from schools. And newspapers play a key role in that measure, along with libraries and computer access to literature. Those countries close to or are ahead of us in that ranking are those we compete with in the international market, so a drop in literacy could have economic consequences.

But there’s another way newspapers help the local economy, as Shankar Vedantam pointed out on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in his article “Local newspaper closures come with hefty price tag for residents.” The newspaper plays a watchdog role that helps keep local governments accountable, and allows outside investors to “trust” the local community better.

Vedantam cites research by Dermot Murphy, Paul Gao and Chang Lee, who studied the closure of more than 300 newspapers across the U.S. from 1996 to 2015.

“They also looked at the borrowing power of cities and towns with thriving newspapers,” Vedantam finds. “When they were done crunching the data, they found there was a significant difference between places that had local newspapers and those that lost them. When a newspaper closed, the cost to borrow money for projects like schools and roads and hospitals, it went up.” That’s thousands of dollars taxpayers had to pay more for the average local government loan.

And there’s more evidence of bad behavior when there isn’t a local paper to keep an eye on things. He covers the issue of illegal waste disposal activities that were occurring in Colorado while the leading newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, was shuttered. Freelance journalists laid off from their jobs uncovered a series of environmental hazards — after they had been going on in the state for more than two years.

A newspaper is like a referee. As with any sporting event, both sides feel the ref is out to “get their team.” I’ve seen fans of both sides scream at the TV, convinced the umpires are stealing the game from their team, in the same game. College and professional sports couldn’t exist without such referees. Even if they miss or blow an occasional call, their value to the economic moneymaker is clear, whereas players and coaches each calling the game would be chaos.

So support your local paper. Their value to the community in terms of better literacy rates, better loan rates, better economic rates, better tax rates, better environmental quality rates — and better enzymatic hydrolysis rates, of course, are worth it.