What do you think about the proposal to construct new bus stops in downtown Sonora? The sale of Wildcat Ranch? How our communities are addressing the challenges related to affordable housing and homelessness? Local officials’ decisions regarding regulation of commercial cannabis? The amount of taxpayer dollars spent on public servants’ meals and travel expenses? The approval of the Tuolumne County General Plan? The adequacy and stability of our water supply? Our preparedness for the next wildfire season?
Do you find yourself nodding in agreement when you learn of local officials’ actions on these topics? Or are you on the other end of the spectrum, struggling to control your disbelief, if not outrage? Perhaps you experience a combination of these things depending on the issue.
Regardless of where you stand on these sometimes-controversial issues, have you stepped back to consider what enables you to have an informed opinion in the first place? How do you know whether you think your elected officials are doing the right thing?
Democratic government depends upon the informed and active participation of its citizens. This is one of the principles upon which the League of Women Voters is founded, and it is what motivates us to weigh in on the threat to democracy that is posed by the weakening — if not outright loss — of local news sources. The threat nationwide is well documented by the 2018 report from the University of North Carolina entitled The Expanding News Desert. A news desert is defined as a community with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.
Is the Mother Lode at risk of becoming a news desert? The parent company of one of our local newspapers, the Union Democrat, has filed for bankruptcy protection. The Union Democrat, like other newspapers across the country, has had to lay off workers, reduce content, and make other difficult decisions in order to try to achieve a sustainable business model in a changing media environment. We applaud its efforts to continue to engage the community, even as we feel the losses. But what if it ultimately doesn’t succeed?
The issues listed in the first paragraph of this piece provide just a sample of the many important local issues covered by the Union Democrat in the last month alone. If Union Democrat reporters weren’t covering the actions of county boards of supervisors, the Sonora City Council, school boards, and other governmental bodies, how would you know what was going on? Would you attend all — or any — of the meetings yourself? Do you personally have the time or resources to investigate complex local issues that affect your health and safety, the education of your children or grandchildren, the roads on which you drive, the local economy, or how your tax dollars are spent?
Local newspapers play a crucial role in informing citizens about issues that affect them directly. Local journalists live in the same communities as the people they serve; they know the governing bodies, the leaders, the influencers. Readers’ feedback, in the form of letters to the editor and opinion pieces, supplement the reporting, providing additional perspectives. The result is that citizens are empowered to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.
If you value the benefits of local news sources — including the irreplaceable role they play in our democratic government — you must support them, or they will vanish. How do you support them? Subscribe. Buy a gift subscription for someone else. Buy advertising. Write letters to the editor. Don’t let our foothills become a news desert.
Patricia Cherry is chair of the Mother Lode League of Women Voters, a unit of the national and state Leagues, is a non-partisan political organization. For almost 100 years, the League has worked to increase understanding of major public policy issues, nationally, statewide, and locally.