Free, but not free

Sep 1, 2020


This newspaper publisher has long been predisposed to remind his readers that there is no such thing as a free press. It takes money, lots of it, to hire dedicated journalists and buy newsprint, ink and computers to produce news. It cost Sonoma West Publishers just over $1.2 million last year to provide a steady stream of vital and reliable news for the four communities we serve in north and west Sonoma County. And, even with all that, we still lost almost $200,000 at the end of the year. Now, during the pandemic-caused economic shutdown, our financial challenge looks nearly impossible some days. But that’s another story for another day.

That’s because there has to be such a thing as a free press. If we did not have a free press, we would not have a free country. If we did not have an institution dedicated to employing and defending independent journalists to tell it like they see it, then we would all be victims of the tyranny of the powerful and the plutocrats. This is a local issue, as well as a national one. It is the job of a free press “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” There are other ways to say that, but the basic instructions for all journalists is to seek the truth and raise hell when necessary.

America’s free press was born at the same time our nation was claiming its independence. At the time, Thomas Jefferson said, if given the choice between a free press and a free government, he would choose a free press. That’s the sentiment you’ll find in the First Amendment that guarantees a free press along with freedom of speech, religion and assembly.

The free press of Franklin, the Adamsses and Thomas Paine championed its independence and guardianship of free speech and open debate. But the free press of America was soon to lose its high morals and purity of purpose.

For the next century up to 1880, the American press and almost all newspapers remained very partisan, often to extremes. Newspapers were either pro- or anti-abolitionist toward slavery, and obviously for the Confederacy or against. This was even true in Sonoma County, where the newspapers in Petaluma endorsed the southern rebellion (Copperheads), while nearby papers were true blue Union.

Newspapers of the late 19th Century, owned by William Randolph Hearst, Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer and others practiced what was called “yellow journalism,” full of scandal-mongering, sensationalism, political spins and unethical scheming. Their prize was to amass dominant circulation and rising profits. If this sounds like today’s business motives of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, you would not be wrong. There were also ethical and upstanding newspapers, but even these were aligned on an axis of supporting or opposing labor unions, immigration, isolationism or specific political parties.

The type of modern newspapers and journalism we see facing historic economic challenges today only emerged less than a century ago. The most successful newspaper enterprises dominated their regions or local markets with near-monopolies of advertising revenues, political influence and strong profits. Radio, then television, slowly eroded these monopolies, and the recent rise of the privately-owned internet behemoths (mentioned above) are scripting the epitaph of America’s market-based and advertising-subsidized free press.

And, so, we have come full circle. Individual benefactors and paid readership financed America’s first independent newspapers and pamphlets. Advertising revenues were supplemental and not the essential lifeblood they later became. As newspapers are now losing billions of annual advertising sales to Google and Facebook, publishers and besieged journalists are again turning to readers and philanthropy to pay for the free press that a free society still requires — perhaps now more than ever since the days before 1776.

A free press must not be confused for what too many think they read on a Facebook page or a Google search result. The word free may have confounding meanings, but independence and democracy still mean what was written in our U.S. Constitution.

Rollie Atkinson is the co-owner of Sonoma West Publishers. Ask him all your questions about going nonprofit during the NNA's 134th Annual Convention & Trade Show, held online Oct. 1-3, 2020.