Next week (March 15-21) is National Sunshine Week, led by the American Society of News Editors to remind everyone about the essential role newspapers play in preserving our democracy at thousands of local city halls, school board chambers, state houses and under the dome of the U.S. Capitol. 

Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

“Sunshine” refers to the daylight and public access America’s free press shines on all the places where the public’s laws and decisions get made. As the motto under the masthead of The Washington Post reads, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” 

Sunshine Week is held every year to correlate with the birthdate of James Madison, chief author of our Bill of Rights.

The United States Constitution in its First Amendment protects the right of a free press. No other business enterprise or non-government entity is mentioned in the Constitution. The founding fathers were convinced that our democracy could not endure without the existence of a free and independent press. Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

While the Constitution guarantees the right and protection of a free press, it does not offer any formulations on how to pay for it or nurture it. Very painfully, all of us inside and outside of America’s free press are learning this hard truth today.

We are sorry to inform you, Mr. Jefferson, but these times of economic distress and political shrillness are, indeed, “limiting” our free press and we are in grave danger of now losing it.

Almost 2,000 newspapers have died in the last decade and half (30,000) of all newsroom jobs have been lost with them. The future of America’s free press is very much under threat, and only heroic and transformational efforts will save it — and our democracy with it.

Even with all this doom and gloom within the inner workings of newspapers, there are still many bright spots to celebrate during National Sunshine Week. Thousands of local communities still have newspapers dedicated to providing factual and essential news to citizens about their local government, taxes, laws and public controversies, disasters and celebrations. Sonoma County is home to nine newspapers that are adjudicated by the California Superior Court as newspapers of “general interest” and that serve the public good. These newspapers are where government agencies and courts are required to publish public notices, court decrees, election dates, etc. These Superior Court adjudications in no way control what, or what not, any one of these newspapers shall print in their news pages, opinion columns or affiliated websites.

Still, it is too bad that Madison and the other framers of our U.S. Constitution did not include a perpetual business plan or ownership solution for the financial needs of a free press. Think of it, what kind of libraries or schools might we have today, if they had to be run as private businesses and without taxpayer support? Isn’t a newspaper just as much of an indispensible institution as a library, school, museum or hospital? 

What we are finding out in these days of digital disruption and civic disorder is that the century-long business model where newspapers sold commercial advertising to perform their democracy-saving work has been a fraud. What does advertising to sell soap, beer or cars have to do with Jefferson’s or Madison’s vision of a free press and independent journalism? Democracy and ethical journalism should never be dependent solely on how many ads get sold or don’t get sold.

The source of true sustainability for a free press, ultimately does not lie with the journalists; it relies on its readers. 

“An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy,” said Jefferson. 

It’s not sunshine that keeps our government honest, it’s what citizens and journalists together make with that sunshine that preserves our democracy. 

— Rollie Atkinson


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