The Power of a Free Press

It’s vital to the health of the state and fundamental to democracy. A recent event on campus highlighted the impact of local, nonpartisan journalism and showed how reimagining the traditional newsroom makes it work.

By: Kristine Yahna Todaro  Tuesday, September 20, 2022 05:22 PM

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“Say ‘Yes’ to a Free Press” at Muhlenberg College featured a discussion with local journalists Cydney Wilson, The Muhlenberg Weekly (left to right); Bob Orenstein, Armchair Lehigh Valley; Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA; Stephanie Sigafoos and Donna Natosi, LehighVallyNews.com (launching in October); and Nick Falsone, Lehigh Valley Live. Photo credits: Joe Romano ’23, Muhlenberg College

Why does a free press matter to a community? And what does the future of local news look like? 

These were the issues discussed when students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in the Event Space on September 15 for “Say ‘Yes’ to a Free Press” hosted by the Department of Media & Communication. The event began with a screening of News Matters, a documentary that explores the decimation of The Denver Post after it was purchased by a hedge fund, which was followed by a talkback with local journalists. 

The same hedge fund purchased Allentown’s only daily newspaper, The Morning Call, in 2021 and sold the newspaper building. Since April, approximately 23 percent of the Call journalists have resigned or moved on.

According to Lecturer of Media & Communication Sara Vigneri, research shows when local newspapers disappear, their communities see lower voter turnout, increased polarization, an erosion of civic engagement and an environment in which misinformation is spread more easily. “Across the country, we have lost roughly 2,155 newspapers since 2004,” she added. “Right now, 200 counties do not have a local newspaper, and half of all counties only have one.”

These “news deserts” mean partisan voices often fill the void. And it often means less pressure on local officials for accountability and transparency and less scrutiny on how state or federal funding is being spent in the community. 

Fortunately, a groundswell of local news startups, along with the continued efforts of long-standing media outlets, ensure this won’t be the case in the Lehigh Valley.

While the news landscape has changed, “the collapse of traditional news allows us to reimagine a better path,” said Chris Baxter, one of the event panelists and editor of the 3-year-old investigative and public-service news outlet Spotlight PA. “The traditional ‘we decide what the stories are’ meant lots of perspectives from many members of the community were left out. The more people who participate in our democracy, the stronger it will be.”

“Journalism is fundamental to democracy,” echoed panelist Stephanie Sigafoos. Formerly a Call reporter, she’s now with LehighValleyNews.com, which is launching in October. The nonprofit newsroom joins the Lehigh Valley’s public television station PBS39 and NPR station 91.3 WLVR as part of Lehigh Valley Public Media. Gutting traditional news outlets has meant less on-the-ground coverage, something LehighValleyNews.com vows to prioritize. “We know what was lost, and we know what we have to do to get it back,” said Sigafoos. “You build trust by showing up in the community, talking with people.” 

The days of competition between news outlets is gone, added Baxter. Collaboration is key. Why send multiple reporters to the same breaking event? “We have to pool our resources and work smart.”

Panelist Cydney Wilson ’23, editor of The Muhlenberg Weekly, stressed the value of being informed, both on campus and in the local community. “Set aside time in your day to read your local news. It’s important.”