Independent local press plays essential role in democracy

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Peter Chen

Last spring, as the presidential primary races for both the Democratic and Republican parties heated up, so too did attacks against the mainstream media. I was elected editor-in-chief shortly after Super Tuesday, and friends from outside The Texan began to ask me whether we were one of, well, them.

Today, as a lame-duck editor who has no intention to work for a newspaper after this semester comes to an end, I still have no idea what that question is supposed to mean.

If there is some sort of liberal media conspiracy to control the government, I haven’t been invited. The reality is that this plucky group of students, who sacrifice our grades to be paid less than minimum wage, sees ourselves as competitors to the other outlets in Austin, not as co-conspirators. To consider the “mainstream media” a monolithic entity is to misunderstand how we are supposed to serve our community — and can keep you, the reader, from properly asking us to do so.

In its 117 years, The Daily Texan has seen its role transform time and time again, and has seen the product it produces change in kind. Over the past 20 years, the rise of digital news media has meant that readers have more choices, but also that digital outlets have pulled away some of the readership that the Austin-American Statesman, the Austin Chronicle and ourselves used to dominate.

One of the largest effects of having more choices has been the proliferation of national, digital-first sites heavy on commentary, and often with an explicit ideological or partisan bent, providing a good deal of people with their news. As someone in the business of having difficult conversations, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that these outlets are “the problem,” especially when some of them are responsible for vital reporting.

Like the commentators that drive readership at those networks, my job is made possible by objective reporting done by journalists in the field. Voters, commentators and legislators depend on them to build the arguments that then dominate the airwaves. 

And those interactions matter. Local investigative journalism has been instrumental in fostering change, even beyond high-profile incidents like the Boston Globe’s coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In 2009, local reporters in Kentucky uncovered their sheriff as complicit in the local crystal meth trade. Last year, our news department’s continued coverage of a black student being assaulted in a racially-motivated incident was followed by the University intervening in the case. And just this week, a high school newspaper in Kansas City broke the story that its principal lied about her credentials, resulting in her resignation.

Our political process requires that voters have open access to information on candidates to decide, which can never exist without a free and independent local press. And while large daily papers do this on the national level, local governments need those checks as well. Local outlets need support to make this happen — and I’m not just referring to us. The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit digital outlet that has received national acclaim for its reporting on policy and politics in Texas, could not exist without reader donations and support. Local papers like the Austin-American Statesman, the San Marcos Daily Record and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung could not exist without subscriptions.

All this is not to say that you should trust us blindly. We teach our reporters to be appropriately suspicious of their sources, to follow up, to dig deeper. We expect the same from our readers. The labor market in journalism is too competitive for us to do anything other than our very best to break interesting stories accurately and quickly — and if we’re not doing that, we hope you’ll be quick to let us know.

It is my hope that our news department’s findings will stir important conversations, and that you will feel free to engage in those discussions with my department regardless of your beliefs, or any of ours. We are most capable of helping this community improve when people with different opinions have difficult discussions based on shared facts. 

Chase is an economics and Plan II senior from Royse City. He is the editor-in-chief.