The Smaller Lights of Democracy Need to Stay Bright, Too

The last decade has proven more challenging to the news industry than any since the end of the early 20th century’s yellow journalism era. The reasons for this reality could fill volumes. But stated briefly, they include: 1) the destruction of revenues from print and from web advertising; 2) the predation by vulture capital firms and the expensive legal hostility from litigious billionaires; 3) the control of content visibility by impersonal social media companies more interested in “engagement” than in the public good or the sustainability of news organizations; 4) the explosion of free media sources, both of high and dubious quality; and 5) the fragmentation and partisanization of news consumers, naturally limiting any one organization’s potential audience.

The radicalization of the conservative movement and the Republican Party also play a key role. If news and opinion organizations decide to call out their descent into nihilism for what it is, they get dismissed as partisan rags of the left. If they bend over backwards to be “balanced,” they invite justified outrage by failing to adequately inform readers of the reality of the situation. The New York Times, for instance, has consistently chosen to softpedal their coverage of the Trump Administration, especially in the headline department. Many customers have chosen to speak with their wallets by unsubscribing.

Still, the big newspapers like New York Times and Washington Post are not seriously in danger. It’s the local papers and smaller online publications that are.

Facebook continues to prioritize garbage conservative content over more honest smaller publications, and the well is drying up for outfits that provide an alternative to what the big behemoths are offering in both reporting and opinion. Those that responded by pivoting to video turned out to be victims of Facebook’s data fakery. Those that sensationalized content and headlines for clicks slowly destroyed their own reputations. Turns out, there’s enough good content out there that paywalls tend to be a self-destructive proposition.

Our magazine doesn’t do any of that—and we feel we serve an important purpose in the media ecosystem. We offer innovative policy dives from a variety of ideological viewpoints that are rarely found elsewhere, and in the Political Animal section of our website, we’re one of the few left-of-center places remaining where you can find old-fashioned blogging. We pull no punches and avoid the equivocating tropes of leading opinion pages, while, at the same time, maintaining high standards of accuracy and freshness of perspective. At least, I like to think so!

The banner head of the Washington Post rightly claims that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Here at the Washington Monthly, we’re a smaller light, but one that serves an important role in keeping our democracy alive.

Ultimately,  the only tried and true way of sustaining that light is through the generous contributions of our readers. So please, make a donation during our holiday fundraising drive.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.