Fields: Sansom Case Points Out Importance Of Newspapers

Guest Columnist

The influence peddling indictment of Republican Representative Ray Sansom, the former Speaker of the House, can be seen on three levels.

The third is the least understood and the most important.
On the surface, Sansom steered $6 million to a Panhandle community college where he worked.  The real purpose of the money was to build a facility that only benefited a friend and political supporter.  The college Prez was indicted for perjury.
At the second level, this arrest picks at the scab of corruption that weaves its way through government spending.  The hope is that this indictment will slow down these kinds of insider deals that benefit few, but are paid for by all of us.
But it is the third level that I wish to discuss because the implications are a genuine threat to democracy. 
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs made it clear that Sansom’s alleged crimes would have never been uncovered if not for the investigation of the Miami Herald and St. Pete Times.
Sadly, with the continuing downward spiral of The Herald and other newspapers, it is not unreasonable to conclude that if Sansom had waited a couple of years he would not have been caught.  That is because there would have been no reporter left to look under his seamy rocks.
[In the way of disclaimer I am hardly a fan of The Herald.  On one occasion they editorialized  the I was “an odious vote buyer. In 2000, while running for judge, they twice falsely wrote that I was involved  in a pending criminal case. Both times they had to write a retraction including a column by the Editor.  The latter came when I showed up their offices with my lawyer Skip Campbell.]
The simple truths are these.

For three hundred years, newspapers have been looking at government and society with a jeweler’s eye.  At the same time elements of government have consistently tried to shut them down.

Go back to 1735.  Publisher John Peter Zenger took on New York Governor William Cosby, who promptly had Zenger arrested for sedition.

Fortunately, with the representation of Andrew Hamilton, the jury acquitted Zenger.
 Woodward, Bernstein, father and son Hiassens,  I.F. Stone and thousands of other reporters have kept government and big business a bit more honest. 

Every year we read stories about reporters going to jail to protect sources.  They are the First Amendment heroes that protect our democracy.
Without real reporting we will end up as a Matt Drudge/blogger/Rush driven mobacracy masquerading as real news.

Their will be no one left to do real daily and investigative reporting. 
 [It remains to be seen that Internet blogging will replace newspapers.  The Ben Affleck/Russell Crow flick State of Play has that theme running through it.]
It seems to be a generational problem. Growing up we always had at least one daily newspaper.

 In 1962, when I moved to Alabama, I immediately subscribed to the Birmingham News.  In 1968, when I moved to Washington, I started the Washington Post on the same day I connected for electricity, gas and the telephone. It was the normal thing to do. 
Now flash forward to the 21st century.  With competition from cable TV and more importantly the Internet, kids barely read the papers.

When my daughter moved to Gainesville, she and her three roomies had no more interest in bringing the Gainesville Sun into their house than they did in keeping boys out.
The simple truths are scary.
Everywhere circulation is declining. The average age of readers is something north of Century Village.

Newspaper are laying off reporters like they were auto workers at GM.

Advertising, which is related to circulation, is dropping like a rock.

It is projected that the last newspaper will be home delivered in my lifetime.  I am 64.
The number and the size of stories are being reduced.  One reporter appears to cover the Broward Courthouse for the Sun-Sentinel and The Herald.  One reporter covers almost all of west Broward — something like seven or eight cities.  Many other Broward communities haven’t seen a reporter in years.   

If the Plantation City Council conducted a pay-to-play naked orgy, I am not sure the public would find out about it. 
There are now major American cities without a daily newspaper. The Sun-Sentinel’s owner, The Tribune Company, is in bankruptcy.

The Herald has been on a selling block for over a year. Investors have shown more interest in a Bernie Madoff hedge fund.
So what is there to do?  We all have ideas and I would like to hear yours.

But here is a simple one.  If you don’t subscribe to a daily newspaper, start today. 
The democracy you save may be your own.

9 Responses to “Fields: Sansom Case Points Out Importance Of Newspapers”

  1. S. Only says:

    I so agree with you, but I am in your generation. Pretty depressing. Is this the beginning of the end? (or maybe we’re in the middle) Maybe PAY for newspaper internet subscriptions? The newspapers would have to require it NOW while they still have some reporters on staff. If all the newspapers did, then people would either have to pay to read it on the internet, or buy the hard copies. At least maybe it would save our magnifiers of injustice one way or the other.

  2. admin says:

    A failure of the server of caused several comments to disappear from this post. Anyone is welcome to resend them….Buddy Nevins

  3. Someone Before Wrote says:

    Someone before had written on this subject that the papers gave their news away for free on the internet without much of a plan for where that step would take them next. That comment appears to be accurate. The question is what next step do the papers have to take and this is a tough question. To be positive you can’t say you’re going broke yet give away your product for free. What smart business person would do that? So they had better get together and figure this out because we do need a free press out there reporting news.

  4. Richard J Kaplan says:


    I was one of those comments to disappear. Let’s just say that Sam is right that newspapers have to survive (but without a public bailout, i.e., required public notices that nobody reads anymore). But now that they do not have a monopoly on information distribution, they need to evolve or will disappear.

    I made several suggestions: First, that the 3 south florida newspapers merge. That way they can cover more territory less expensively. They kind of doing that now with shared stories.

    Second, that they stop giving away their product on the internet. No, you don’t make it up on volume. The Wall Street Journal allows you to read the beginning of an article, but you have to pay for the rest (unless you are already a newspaper subscriber).

    Third, that they expand local coverage since that is seriously lacking. That is why I dropped the Miami Herald, though I daily read it for free on line.

    Next, expand coverage on what sells. If they did a survey, I bet you that sports is a big seller. What really draws people to read in the first place, rather than watch it on TV news? There is a reason that Sports is last on TV coverage. Cause they found that people will stayed tuned to the end of the telecast for the Sports. If Sports was earlier, they would change channels once it is over.

    Finally, they sponsor schools and colleges (from elementary school up) on programs to re-teach reading newspapers. Not just to recruit future reporters, but recruit future readers. Maybe part of a Communications or Current Events class. Something that they actually have to learn to use a newspaper. Apple did a great job of getting computers in schools. Newspapers can do the same.

  5. Hey Kaplan says:

    You make strong points. But by that logic, perhaps your city Lauderhill and it’s small surrounding neighbors should merge to form a more economically viable city? Would you support that? A larger city able to deliver better services at a reduced cost?

  6. Richard J Kaplan says:

    Strangely, its come up. However, clearly the majority of voters have no interest. The problem is that some cities are too expensive to merge into, while others that make some sense don’t have any interest. Remember, we would have to be continguous to consider it.

    Cities, both elected officials and residents, are very protective of their city. If you put it to a vote of the people, I don’t believe any plan would presently pass.

    However, we have been able to merge some governmental activities together. You could see more of that in the future. We have offered it before with other cities, but they had no interest.

    Also, remember, Bigger is not always Better. Sometimes it is, but not always.

  7. Hey Kaplan (2) says:

    You’re a bright guy and I like reading your stuff. But you say the clear majority have no interest in municipal mergers? Based on what? A poll? How can you say that the clear majority wouldn’t be interested in a plan, especially today, if it produced better services for them at less cost? The everyday residents I know countywide want better services at a lower cost. Have you studied the prospect of merger with your surrounding cities, have you asked for and published such studies? Don’t be so quick to dismiss things as not being viable until you can prove it to be such through work and analysis.

    Government Evolution 101 is that cities start off as small, then they merge to others to become larger and eventually greater cities. That is true in America and worldwide. And as to governmental activities, those are ripe for economy of scale examination also. I’m told there are 23 different water management agencies in Broward alone. Can you imagine such a thing? Who in their right mind would suggest that it wouldn’t be more cost effective and service efficient to have replace them all with one water management agency?

    Yet, I agree with the concept that mergers are not alway the answer. In the case of newspapers, for example, having only one would be a problem in light of how “journalism” has evolved lately with their strong political slants in sharp contrast to the “Hear now the news” era of our youth which was more factual and let the listener draw their own conclusions. In that context, one could argue that the only thing more harmful to democracy than no newspapers might be having only one newspaper. You need at least two for contrast in any town of note. Not so with cities, especially when they are too small to get the job done well at the lowest possible cost to residents.

  8. Richard J Kaplan says:

    First of all, you keep referring to small cities. Lauderhill is about 76,000 (and I believe is in the top 500 largest cities in the US, out of 25000). Lauderdale Lakes is 34,000, Tamarac is in the 60,000 range and Sunrise and Plantation are probably in the 80,000 range. I don’t think we are truly small cities, except some may consider Lauderdale Lakes. Personally I think of small cities as cities of no more than 20,000.

    If Lauderhill, Tamarac, and Sunrised merged, it would become the largest city in Broward by over 40000 people.

    You are correct. There are no studies. Only the negative reaction to every time the issue comes up. We don’t have the money for studies, but to date, except for a couple of people from Lauderdale Lakes and you, I have never heard a positive expression of interest.

    If someone wanted to do a poll to create a foundation of support, that would be interesting to look at. However, the question can’t just be, “Do you believe cities should merge?” It needs to be, “Do you believe your city should merge with an adjoining city?” Better yet, see the reaction when asked specificially which city.

    Let me know if someone does it.

  9. Hey Kaplan (3) says:

    A fair response and clarification, thank you.

    By the way, I think there was a study some years ago, and forgive that I’ve forgotten the source, but the outcome was that a city needed at least 75,000 residents to be sustainable. And sustainability is a big part of this the question. In the northeast, a city of 20,000 is called an apartment complex. Here, there are many HOA’s with larger numbers of residents. The question isn’t size that much although size does matter (yes, I went there). Rather it’s economy of scale and what grouping of individual entities, if merged, would produce what level of service in return for what tax burden.

    The law of averages suggests that two or three small entities, joined together to form a larger, more profitable entity, would likely result from municipal merger. And so the poll question I’d ask isn’t what you suggest — “Would you support merging with an adjoining city.” The question to ask is “Would you support a merger knowing that in return you’d get better city services at a lower cost to you.”

    You could afford to do more for residents by cutting out all the administrative cost inherent to having so many small operations, and still produce a savings. Companies do it all the time. Once people understood that, I think the answer would be a resounding yes.