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Shop local: Protecting the free flow of public information

There's admirable support for independent local businesses these days.

Many expected Amazon to put local bookstores out of business, but after a steady decline in the aughts, independent stores have had a resurgence, fueled in large part by a sense of community and the need to support businesses in our own backyards.

We've seen the same thing with independent record stores. Though few saw the revival of vinyl coming, there has long been a concerted effort to support local record stores because of their value to the community. Against the odds, many independent record stores are thriving, thanks in part to Record Store Day promotions that bring local customers to their doors.

Of course, there are also the ubiquitous campaigns to "Buy Local." Although local businesses can offer unique merchandise and enhanced customer service, a driving force behind these campaigns is that we should support businesses in our hometowns. Neighbors support neighbors.

The most independent and local business in any community, though, is the local newspaper. Stores come and go, and malls open and close, but the local newspaper is often the only institution in town that has been there for decades, serving our parents and grandparents before us. Local newspapers need our support.

Of course, the most immediate way to help is to subscribe. For some reason, Americans (and many around the globe) have decided that news should be free. It's not a coincidence that we're a nation long on polarizing opinions and short on insight. Every dollar spent on news is an investment in the community, and in turn, a more-informed populace.

Just as independent record stores and bookstores have niches that set them apart, so too do local newspapers. One of those is the publication of local legal notices. These concern budgets, public meetings, election dates, foreclosures, property auctions, and other important public matters, and their publication is often mandated by law.

It's a natural fit for newspapers, the local business committed to keeping an eye on the government and looking out for the community's interests. The revenue from those ads also helps underwrite this critical watchdog work.

Inevitably, though, government officials try to tamper with this ideal arrangement. During my tenure as dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, I received a call from a local legislator who knew of my past work as editor of USA Today and an advocate for transparency. He explained that he thought it would be a great idea to have those public notices published and posted online, saving the costs associated with publishing the notices in a local newspaper. He asked whether I thought would be a good step, and my reply boiled down to "Only if you don't care about democracy." I still don't know why he thought I would be an ally.

This was not an isolated effort. There are ongoing efforts by those required to pay for the public notices to cut newspapers out of the mix, creating a government outlet to publish the information.

Think about that. Public legal notices are designed to keep the public informed about what government is up to. Do we turn that responsibility over to government officials, while also taking revenue away from the one local business dedicated to keeping the government honest?

The week of Feb. 6 included National Yogurt Day and Send a Card to a Friend Day and yes, a celebration of the value of public notices in the state of Tennessee. With all due respect to fermented milk and friendships, the latter is a very big deal.

Consider stopping at your local bookstore and picking up the work of a local author. You may want to dust off that turntable and refresh your record collection at a local shop. And in any way you can, offer your support for local newspapers, and democracy to boot.

Ken Paulson is director of the Free Speech Center at the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University and former dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU.

 

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