Finally, besieged newspapers have a defender in Congress

The Globe is a mark of the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The Globe is a mark of the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer Tish Wells / MCT

WASHINGTON -- Just hours after the final edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer rolled off the presses Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray said that without newspapers serving as watchdogs no one would track local school boards, uncover scandals like Watergate or the Walter Reed Medical Center or give a voice to the vulnerable and mistreated.

"Mr. President, this is really troubling me because at the end of the day, newspapers aren't just another business," the Washington state Democrat said during a speech on the Senate floor. "And if more close and there's nothing left to replace them, our democracy will be weaker as a result."

Murray's bother, Greg Johns, was a sportswriter at the P-I before losing his job when the Hearst-owned P-I ceased publication. Johns will continue to write for the paper's Web site, which is still operating, the senator's office said.

The P-I is the second newspaper to close in recent weeks. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver folded on Feb. 27, and a number of newspapers around the nation are facing deepening financial problems as a result of the recession and competition from the Internet.

Murray said it was unclear whether the Web will be able to fill the void as the number of newspapers shrinks and those that remain in business cut their staffs and news holes.

"There's been a lot of talk lately about whether online publications can, or will, adequately replace the paper editions," Murray said. "While there's something comfortable about the fact that we can pick up a paper, spread it on the kitchen table and cut out articles to stick on the refrigerator, what's important to me is that if the media is changing, someone will be there to step in and do the work newspapers do for our communities now."

The senator said she became increasingly concerned about the future of newspapers when she realized the number of reporters covering the Washington state Legislature in Olympia has dropped from 31 to nine since 2001; where once there were a dozen reporters covering the state's congressional delegation there are now two.

"The reality is that newspapers have been struggling and cutting back for several years now," she said. "Many of the major newspapers are worried about whether they'll make it through the economic downturn."

Murray said newspapers have always done the heavy lifting when it came to digging for leads, sitting through meetings and breaking hard stories. Newspapers have exposed graft and corruption, uncovered environmental threats caused by such things as strip mining, hog farming and contaminated waterways, and exposed injustice, prejudice and the mistreatment of the powerless, she said.

She also said competition between newspapers has produced even better reporting.

"That competition meant everyone from corporate leaders to school officials to sports team owners were held to a higher standard," Murray said. "I really hope what we're seeing is just an evolution in the news business. I hope that when it all shakes out, the media will end up as strong as ever."

Murray's speech came after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the Justice Department to consider granting struggling San Francisco area papers "more leeway" to consolidate business operations or merge in order to survive.

Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, asked the department to consider whether saving the San Francisco Chronicle was more important than the agency's antitrust mission.

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