EDITORIAL: Sunshine Week principles need support year-round

York Dispatch Editorial Board
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 10, 2019 AND THEREAFTER- In this Feb. 19, 2019, photo, the old Daily Guide office stands for sale in St. Robert, Mo. With the shutdown of the newspaper in September 2018, this area in central Missouri's Ozark hills joined more than 1,400 other cities across the United States to lose a newspaper over the past 15 years, according to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University North Carolina. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

There are plenty of reasons to be thankful for living in York, but here’s one that might not always be top of mind:

York is a two-newspaper city.

That’s a rarity these days. It is also something worth toasting as the nation this week marks Sunshine Week. Launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week, which runs through Saturday, has become an annual initiative to promote open government and highlight the importance of freedom of information.

The commemoration is timelier than ever, as more and more municipalities don’t even have one newspaper to call their own.

With cutbacks and closures in newsrooms nationwide, so-called “news deserts” — vast swaths where there is no professional journalism practiced — are growing.

And while it has become popular to disparage journalists during the administration of a low-information president who has sought to demonize the media, there are real and detrimental impacts to the loss of journalistic oversight.

For example, newspapers are often the leading watchdogs in their communities. From documenting how tax dollars are spent to monitoring how educational and governmental institutions operate to holding local officials accountable for their statements and actions, local newspapers provide consistent and necessary oversight.

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This is not only a vital public service, it is an economic necessity. Because not only does aggressive and reliable reporting discourage public officials from taking liberties or exploiting their office, it saves taxpayers money.

According researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, without watchdogs, government costs go up. Their first-of-its-kind report, released last year, found that municipal borrowing costs increase in the wake of a local newspaper’s demise. They report that the “local information vacuum” created by a newspaper’s closure means “potential lenders have greater difficulty evaluating the quality of public projects and the government officials in charge of these projects.” Less information, more risk, higher interest rates for bonds and loans.

Of course, it is not just the pecuniary interest but the public interest that benefits when newsrooms perform the valuable role of community watchdog. And very often, they are the only resource with the time, means, and background to do so.

For example, taking legal action — as the Dispatch has done in a quest for access to the state’s report on York County Prison issues — can be arduous and costly. But such steps are often necessary to push back against undue or inappropriate government secrecy.

Or even, in some cases, simple ineptitude. As the Associated Press accurately notes, “With no watchdog to shine the light, corruption, waste, deception and incompetence can flourish.”

None of which is to discount public participation in likewise shining sunlight on governmental operations. Such actions are necessary and welcome. But the very Freedom of Information laws designed to expedite the process of making public information available are often used to deflect or delay access to materials. In the face of such obstruction, the need for more consistent oversight — and pressure — is clear.

Sunshine Week highlights the difficult but necessary work of ensuring accountability among those in positions of public power. It is a reminder that government transparency and the public’s right to know are foundational tenets of a fair and functioning democracy. As such, they must be insisted upon, spurred on and fought for — this week and every week.