You might not have ever heard of the Independent-Enterprise, but it was once a weekly newspaper that filled a unique place in Payette County, Idaho.

The Independent-Enterprise covered Payette County since 1890. At the time, the Payette Enterprise and the Payette Independent were two separate papers that were split by the Republican and Democratic parties. They were later combined to form the Independent-Enterprise.

The small weekly newspaper — which was owned by Wick Communications, an Arizona-based newspaper company — chugged along for decades just across the Snake River from Ontario, but on June 24, the paper printed its last edition and closed its doors.

Anymore the news of a local paper shutting down isn’t exceptional. In the past 15 years, 2,100 newspapers across the nation shuttered. For many years the prevailing industry party line was digital news content and platforms would save the day.

That hasn’t happened. At least not in the rural heartland of the nation where, arguably, an unbiased, independent news source is probably most essential.

Large swaths of news deserts — entire geographic regions of the U.S. — now showcase no newspapers.

That means no original reporting is completed in those areas. That means no one is watching where taxpayer funds are going and why. Inside these news deserts, no independent entity is observing and holding local politicians accountable. That means the people who matter the most in a democracy — voters — are out of the loop and disengaged from their government.

Accurate information and watchdog journalism are the lubricants essential to the machine of democracy. The founders purposefully injected safeguards for an independent press into the very First Amendment to the Constitution. They did not do so on a whim. Men dedicated to democracy, they understood our form of government can prosper only with a free press.

Since the fall of 2018, more than 300 newspapers in the U.S. have failed. For every failed newspaper, a gaping hole in democracy exists. Voters are cheated. People are uninformed. Those who seek to undermine democracy — either overtly or covertly — grow emboldened when a newspaper vanishes.

The COVID-19 virus may damage this industry I love in ways I cannot imagine. Newspapers close for a host of reasons, but lack of revenue — as advertising slumps because of economic downturns or natural disasters, such as the COVID-19 virus — plays a huge role in their demise.

Newspapers need revenue to pay for critical reporting that keeps you, the reader, informed. As a member of a democracy, voters need as much information that is unbiased as possible. Without such information we all are forced into corners and, often, make bad choices. Candidates who have no business in politics are suddenly in office — no questions asked.

The Independent-Enterprise probably didn’t draw more than 2,000 readers on its best days, but it served a very important function for a small, rural community. Now it’s gone. That troubles me. As an editor, I worry about the future with fewer newspapers and less independent oversight of government. In this digital age, where social media drives all types of information across the iPhone and computer screens, I wonder, with fewer newspapers, how information will not only be disseminated but consumed.

High-minded proclamations about the dire situation in the newspaper industry are fine but, in the end, the simple truth is troubling enough. Without independent news sources in this nation, our government for and by the people, will die.

And that is very, very concerning to me.

———

Andrew Cutler is the editor of the

Wallowa County Chieftain

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