Why America needs journalists

Celebrating National Newspaper Week Oct. 4

A look at winners of the Pulitzer Prize in the past two years underscores why America needs journalists.

It’s not just nationally recognized media giants pursuing stories around the globe that win journalism’s most prestigious honor. It’s news staffs that are digging out stories about abuses harming people in their local communities.

This year, the Anchorage, Alaska, Daily News, with contributions from ProPublica, won the Pulitzer for public service “for a riveting series that revealed a third of Alaska’s villages had no police protection … and spurred an influx of money and legislative changes.”

Also this year, the Gannett Co.’s Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal won the Pulitzer for breaking news reporting “for its rapid coverage of hundreds of last-minute pardons by Kentucky’s governor, showing how the process was marked by opacity, racial disparities and violations of legal norms.”

And in 2019, the staff of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Advocate won the Pulitzer for local reporting “for a damning portrayal of the state’s discriminatory conviction system, including a Jim Crow-era law, that enabled Louisiana courts to send defendants to jail without jury consensus on the accused’s guilt.”

National Newspaper Week is Oct. 4-10, and this year’s theme is “America Needs Journalists,” a fitting focus as the ranks of journalists dwindle.

Digital disruption has collapsed legacy newspapers’ primarily advertising-based business model, and thousands of newspapers and journalism jobs have vanished as a result. From 2004 to 2019, more than a quarter of the nation’s newspapers folded, leaving behind vast news deserts, according to research by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina. Reporters and editors employed by newspapers dropped by about half.

At the same time, America needs journalists more than ever to fulfill their main mission: to seek and report the truth. Social media delivers Americans some credible, vetted journalism, but it’s mixed in with a bewildering flood of friends’ photos, personal opinion, propaganda disguised as news, and wacky conspiracy theories. At the same time, prominent cable “news” outlets fill prime time with ideology-driven commentary rather than news reporting.

America needs journalists, who are ethically bound to maintain independence and impartiality in their reporting. Journalists’ allegiance is to the truth, regardless of whether the facts they find might be perceived as favoring one cause or hurting another. Journalists are human and sometimes fall short, but independently seeking the truth is our north star.

Our readers recognize that America needs journalists to hold government accountable, from the local school board to Congress. As the coronavirus spread this spring, journalists at the Des Moines Register and across the country dug out information about the responses by local hospitals, county boards of health, state government, Congress and the White House. One Register reader wrote, “Thanks for the Register’s reporting on COVID-19 in Iowa. I urge you to have your reporters continue to press on the issue of better transparency from the governor’s office and IDPH (Iowa Department of Public Health). … The public needs better reporting and we rely on the media to press this.”

Government exists to serve the people, but America needs journalists to navigate the bureaucracy and dig out needed information. A reader wrote this to Lee Rood, the Register’s Reader’s Watchdog: “Thank you for your article regarding stimulus checks mailed to deceased people.  My mother died 3/4/2019.  I received a $1200 stimulus check made out to her with “DECD” behind her name and mailed to me at my home address. I knew we were not entitled to the money, but was at a loss as to what to do with the check. … Your article provided the information I needed to return the check to the correct department. THANK YOU. I always read your articles and appreciate the help you give to our fellow citizens.”

America needs journalists to unite our communities in sharing the common joys and trials of being human. Iowa columnist Courtney Crowder wrote a moving piece when the state reached the grim milestone of 1,000 deaths from COVID-19. One reader wrote, “That was a beautiful column, raw and real and moving. It was also comforting and for that I thank you. You put into words so many of the things we’re all feeling in this painful time.”

America needs journalists to tell the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Another of my recent favorite columns from Courtney was about Joe Barksdale, now in his 90s, who has sold chocolate chip cookies at the Iowa State Fair since 1993. For seven years, he barely broke even, but he believed in his cookies, made from his grandmother’s recipe. With new locations and the twist of piling the cookies high in a pyramid, sales took off. At the 2019 fair, he sold nearly 2 million cookies. That would be impressive enough, but there’s more: The business netted $725,000 in profit last year and could have sold for millions. But Barksdale has donated the business to the fair, and his beloved grandmother’s recipe to the citizens of Iowa.

America needs more inspirational stories like that.

This year, amid a pandemic, newspapers have faced unprecedented challenges. Register journalists, press operators and our delivery force have risked their own health to ensure our news report reaches readers each day.

One reader wrote this to me, “I want to thank you and everyone else for being there through this crisis. It is so comforting to open the front door each morning and have my paper there as usual. … I worry about all of you being our lifeline. Please know that we appreciate everything you do.”

America needs journalists, and it is an honor to be that lifeline.

Carol Hunter is the Des Moines Register’s executive editor. She wants to hear your questions, story ideas or concerns at 515-284-8545, [email protected], or on Twitter @carolhunter.