– Bill Withers
The great philosopher Bill Withers – may he rest in peace – may have had love in mind when he wrote his famous song. But, much like other timeless works down through the ages, the sentiments he expressed apply to other situations as well. This week is one of them.
This week is Sunshine Week, the annual week set aside to call attention to the Freedom of Information Act – at both the state and federal level – and other open-records requirements that are often referred to as “sunshine laws.”
As in, sunshine being the best disinfectant and all that.
This year’s General Assembly saw Virginia’s sunshine law both expanded and reduced, which is a far better record than all the years when it’s simply been reduced.
State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, sponsored a bill – already signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin – that requires votes of the state parole board be made public. This follows the controversy that saw the parole board make an unusual number of controversial releases, with no way to know who was voting for them and who was voting against them.
Meanwhile, the legislature undid part of a law championed by then-Del. Chris Hurst, D-Radford, that made public certain police records in closed cases where the records would not impinge on any prosecution.
Now, maybe you don’t care about the parole board or police records, but the point here is the same: The public’s business should be public. Maybe someday there will be some record you do care about.
There’s another point about the Freedom of Information Act that’s often overlooked: This isn’t just a law for the press, it’s a law for the public. Any of you can invoke the Freedom of Information Act to get access to certain government records, if you’re inclined to take the time and pay whatever fees are required (which are sometimes quite onerous, by the way). It’s only considered a press freedom bill because it’s usually only journalists who are the ones monitoring local and state governments on a full-time basis – and that brings me to another aspect of Sunshine Week.
To paraphrase Mr. Withers, there ain’t no sunshine if news organizations are gone.
We live in an unusual time of transition: People have access to information at their fingertips but the number of people providing them information – on state and local governments – is declining rapidly.
Between 2005 and 2020, about one-fourth of the newspapers in the United States ceased publishing, according to data compiled by Penny Abernathy, a professor at Northwestern University (who did most of the research when she was at the University of North Carolina). In all, about 2,200 papers have closed.
We see this here in Virginia: There used to be daily newspapers in Covington and Clifton Forge. Now they’re gone. Some 200 counties across the country now have no newspaper whatsoever; the others have seen their newspapers shrink, sometimes beyond recognition. The Pew Research Center reports that since 2008, newsroom employment in the United States has fallen by 26%. Other numbers are more severe: According to the NewsGuild, Lee Enterprises – which owns many of the daily newspapers in Virginia (including ones in Bristol, Danville, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Richmond and Roanoke) – reduced the headcount at its unionized newspapers by 46% between 2010 and 2019. During that same period, Alden Global Capital – which is now trying to buy Lee in a hostile takeover – reduced its headcount by 74.4%. Make no mistake: That’s what Alden will do if it gets its hands on those papers. If you think they’re shrinking too much, you haven’t seen anything until Alden gets through with them. Just ask readers in Norfolk and Newport News, where two once-great newspapers now owned by Alden, are just shadows of their former selves.
Free virtual session on local news
The Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville will hold a free virtual session on “The Critical Role of Local Journalism” on March 17 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Details and info on how to register here. Cardinal News is a co-sponsor.
It’s no secret why this is happening: Readers are moving online every day but advertising (which historically has paid almost all the freight) is not moving to online news sites. Instead, that revenue is getting vacuumed up by search engines and social media sites that can target people with algorithmic precision. As revenue goes down, costs get cut and that almost always means cutting people – journalists.
Here’s why that matters: Fewer journalists means fewer people sitting through city council meetings and rezoning hearings and school board retreats – and telling readers what happened. Fewer people monitoring court cases. Fewer people reporting on high school games – or high school plays or high school science fairs or anything else.
Newsrooms aren’t shrinking because people have lost interest in news; they’re shrinking because the old business model doesn’t work and most daily newspapers now are in the hands of large, out-of-state corporations that are often saddled with debt. You’re getting less local news because there’s less revenue – and with what revenue there is, bondholders and stockholders have to get paid first. That’s why you’re not getting the coverage you used to get of – well, fill in the blank. And there are a lot of blanks.
That’s one of the reasons we formed Cardinal News – to fill the gaps that legacy news organizations aren’t able to fill. We’re hardly alone. All across the country, we’re seeing nonprofit news sites like ours springing up as legacy news organizations are forced to retreat. When we launched in September, we were one of 300 nonprofit news sites around the country, as measured by the Institute for Nonprofit News, the trade association for such sites. As of today, not quite six months later, that number is up to 360. Six months from now, I’m sure it will be even higher. The world is changing; this is one of the ways how.
I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t use this occasion to point out that we operate on a public broadcasting model – we rely on donations. If you’d like to see more coverage of Southwest and Southside – more sunshine on our part of the state, if you will – here’s how to make that happen. (Don’t expect any favors; donors have no influence on news decisions. Read our policies on funding transparency here.) However, let me also make another pitch: Please, subscribe to your local newspaper. We’re not a substitute for your local paper. We’re the only news organization west of Richmond with a full-time reporter in the state capital year-round but we’re not covering your city council or planning commission. They are. Help keep them there.
Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act still has too many exceptions. We don’t know who has reported complaints to the governor’s controversial teacher tipline. We also don’t even know who has filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get that information. The Virginia Supreme Court has sealed reports in a high-profile case – records from the former parole board chair that led to her losing her job – and then sealed the rationale for sealing those records. Secrecy upon secrecy! But nobody will even know that secrecy exists unless someone is there asking questions.