A few weeks ago, emails flew between school board members throughout Humboldt County in response to a story on the Lost Coast Outpost about how much various school bonds in Humboldt County would end up costing future taxpayers. Outpost Editor Hank Sims had plugged our county into a searchable database compiled by the Los Angeles Times as part of an investigative story the paper did on capital appreciation bonds. That's a type of bond often used to fund big building projects.
My husband is on the Arcata School District board. And voters had just given the board the OK to issue $7 million in bonds. He sent out a flurry of emails to everyone involved in Arcata's bond process to make sure the district wouldn't be caught with its financial pants down. He feared Arcata would find itself in the same position as McKinleyville: Taxpayers there discovered they will pay $10 for every dollar the school board borrowed and that kindergarten kids will still be paying off that debt when they graduate from college, if they decide to stick around that long.
The school bonds story became the talk of the county. The Times-Standard, Arcata Eye and North Coast Journal all covered it.
San Diego Assemblyman Ben Hueso has said he will introduce a bill that will prevent public agencies from issuing long-term, high interest bonds.
But he wouldn't be taking that action, and we wouldn't be looking into our bonds here, were it not for other enterprising journalists. A retired Detroit Free Press reporter blogged about the cost of these bonds in May; the news site Voice of San Diego brought the issue to its community's attention in August; and the LA Times came out in November with its database, which in turn was used by several other newspapers and news sites around the state to look up local bonds. The Times' story prompted Sims to plug our county into its database.
Voice of San Diego is an 8-year-old experiment in nonprofit journalism. A San Diego businessman funded it with about $1.5 million, and it now survives on grants from about a dozen foundations. It takes about $1 million a year to run the online-only site, with most of the money going to pay salaries for about 11 journalists plus support staff.
All of you who have been paying attention to the school bonds story, consider this: It isn't clear if nonprofit news organizations like Voice of San Diego are sustainable. And it isn't clear if for-profit news organizations like the Detroit Free Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Times-Standard and the Arcata Eye will last long either. Without them, you'd know a lot less about how your tax money is spent and how much you will pay in taxes in the future.
For too long, we've allowed corporate media companies and advertisers to fund our news industry. And they've been willing to do it as long as we agreed to pay for subscriptions. But too many of us think that the information we get on our phones or iPads is free. We don't care that someone has to pay the salary of the trained newsperson to gather the information and write it up in language we can understand. Someone else can worry about that.
But we do need to worry about it. On Dec. 31, Tribune Co., which owns The L.A. Times, will exit bankruptcy, and its owner is looking to sell that paper and six others -- including the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun. These are papers that once were known for investigative journalism of the type that created the school bonds database. Meanwhile, the Journal Register Co. -- which owns a chain of small papers on the East Coast -- is in its second bankruptcy. It's an affiliate of MediaNews Group, which owns our Times-Standard. The holding company for MediaNews emerged from bankruptcy in 2010. And in July of last year, Kevin Hoover, who owns the Arcata Eye, announced that he will close that paper in February of 2014.
Without news organizations, who will produce all that news that ends up as links your friends post on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr? Unpaid bloggers can't do it alone.
Right now everyone is talking about how this country will avoid or fall off of a fiscal cliff. We are at a different cliff now too, but few people seem to realize it or care. It's an information cliff. Our major news organizations are standing at the edge of it and with them our local news shops.
When news organizations do their jobs, we find out about important things companies and government bodies would rather we not know. Our ignorance is their bliss. So do you think corporations or governments are going to do much to make sure we have solid news agencies that will protect the public's right to know?
Venture capitalist Buzz Woolley, who funded the Voice of San Diego, once told an interviewer that he hoped other wealthy businessmen would fund other nonprofit news sites. That might be feasible in localities rich in rich people. But I don't think you are going to find many of them in small, rural towns. It didn't work too well for the Eureka Reporter, which had a five-year run a while back, care of Eureka businessman Rob Arkley, although that was fun while it lasted.
I'm not sure what we need to do as a community, state and nation to protect and strengthen our news industry. But I do think we should have community conversations about its future. When our Founding Fathers set up this grand experiment we call democracy, they knew that they had to ensure a free and healthy press; they gave us the First Amendment and made the postal service low cost to foster distribution of information. They knew that you can't have government of the people and by the people without informed people.
With public bonds, taxpayers don't want their kids and grandkids paying steep prices for bad financial decisions we make today. It's time we start looking at news organizations as public assets that fulfill a public service. An information void will cost us in many ways that are hard to foresee. Do we want our kids and grandkids paying those costs years from now? What they don't know could hurt them.
Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.