By Richard T. Griffiths

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

Here’s what happens to communities when local journalism collapses: Taxpayers pay more and know less.

When local newspapers shut down, county payrolls swell, jumping $1.4 million within a year of a newspaper closing. Taxpayers pay more in taxes—an increase of about $85 per capita. It costs more to borrow money for government projects like roads and schools. But these distressing pocketbook issues, documented by researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago and Notre Dame, aren’t the only bad news.

When people live in news deserts, voter participation falls off dramatically, as researchers from the University of Texas and Cleveland State University found. Democracy takes a hit.

That’s why it was so alarming when this message popped up on the website of the Waycross Journal-Herald this fall: “Stop the Presses. The Waycross Journal-Herald, which has been owned and operated by the Williams family since 1916, will cease publication as of September 30th.”

And why it was such a relief when owners of The Brantley Beacon in Nahunta bought the Waycross Journal-Herald a few weeks later and began operating it as a weekly publication. Southeast Georgia got a reprieve.

Local journalism is disappearing in Georgia

But let’s face it. The Fourth Estate — the constitutionally recognized protector of the public interest guaranteed by the First Amendment — is no longer there in many parts of Georgia. Even in bigger communities, local journalism is wilting as social media and search engines gobble up ad dollars and redistribute news content for free.

This presents challenges not only for the media business, but also for local and state governments. Concerned citizens who don’t have a news surrogate are increasingly seeking public documents and demanding access to public meetings. We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation know this because those citizens are asking for copies of our Red Book, Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia. They’re using our sample letters to draft their requests in line with the state’s Open Records Act.

And when they get confusing responses from their government officials — or no response at all — they’re contacting us or the office of state Attorney General Chris Carr for help. The attorney general is responsible for enforcing Georgia’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act, and Carr exercised that authority earlier this year when his office filed the first-ever criminal charges for open records violations against a former City of Atlanta press secretary.

Who enforces transparency for state agencies?

That case, now playing out in court, highlights one of the key issues we at the foundation see emerging in the 2020 General Assembly session that will kick off in January.

When the state attorney general fights against Open Records Act violations committed by a local government officials, it’s not simple, but it is straightforward. The state’s highest-ranking lawyer is fighting to uphold state laws. But what happens when the open government dispute is between a citizen or a news organization and a state agency? The AG’s office might issue an opinion that supports transparency before the dispute results in litigation. But once court papers are filed, the attorney general’s role must be to defend the state agency. It’s Carr’s job to do so. It’s in the state constitution.

The foundation would like to challenge Attorney General Carr and his terrific team of attorneys — who played an important role in checking the legal facts in our recently updated Red Book — to think a bit about how we might ease that potential conflict. Is there a mechanism that could be created in those cases so the official responsible for enforcing open records laws is not in the position of having to defend a state agency for not following the law? We at the foundation believe it is worthwhile for our state lawmakers and other officials to consider solutions.

Keeping Georgians informed and holding the powerful accountable

And as the legislative session draws near, we have a challenge for the voters, taxpayers, businesspeople and elected officials who benefit from accountability journalism in their local communities. Recognize the value journalism delivers, and get engaged. Buy a newspaper. Subscribe to a local news site. Watch your local evening news. Contribute to the public radio and television stations that keep you informed. If you don’t like a story, say so. But don’t dismiss it as fake news until you’ve really explored what the reporters and editors in your communities are doing to keep you in the know and hold the powerful accountable.

Otherwise, here’s a glimpse of things to come. In the waning days of the last legislative session, six state representatives rolled out House Bill 734 — the so-called “Ethics in Journalism Act.” The bill calls for a journalism oversight board and for accreditation of all journalists working for news organizations in Georgia. There’s even a misguided twist on Georgia’s open government laws, where interview subjects would have the right to all outtakes and interview transcripts within three days of an interview. Mind you, this is coming from the only public officials in Georgia who have specifically exempted themselves from Georgia’s Open Records Act — that’s right, our state Sunshine Laws don’t apply to the General Assembly.

Why do legislators want to make news less available?

It’s doubtful that this bill, as written, would make it through the Legislature. And if it did, the judges and justices in our courts would probably find it unconstitutional. But it’s still very, very troubling.

That’s because House Bill 734 was proposed by six Georgia lawmakers who have standing in the communities they serve: a businessman, a pharmacist, a marketing consultant, a lawyer, a retired county agent and a real estate developer. A few years ago, no one of their stature would have dared propose such a bill. They would never have wanted to go home and explain why they were taking legislative steps to reduce the public’s access to legitimate news and information.

Now, in the siloed, algorithm-driven world of news via social media, these lawmakers’ views on journalism mirror opinions held by a third of Americans — nearly half of Republicans — who agree with the president of the United States that the media is “the enemy of the American people.”

Core principles of democracy

Those of us who believe in accountability journalism and open and transparent government as core principles in the preservation of our democracy must make our case to these lawmakers and the citizens they represent. We must work much harder to explain how a robust media helps Georgians stay healthier and safer, keeps watch over taxpayer dollars, follows the trail of corruption and champions the public’s right to know.

News deserts devolve into democracy deserts. That’s why we must cherish and protect our rights to government access, support accountability journalism in our communities and be grateful that the well of local news isn’t running dry in places like Waycross.

Richard T. Griffiths will become president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation on Jan. 1, 2020.