Nearly a century ago, the gray wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone National Park – the result of the federal government’s early failure to provide for their protection from the human predators that the newly established national park attracted, and of government-subsidized predator control programs that later sped their demise.
The last wolf kills were reported in 1926. Sporadic reports of wolf sightings followed, but their numbers were no longer sustainable.
The unanticipated result of eradication was a domino effect. Safe from their main predator, the elk population thrived. In growing number, they dined sumptuously on native willows and other plants that grew along stream banks. The vegetation eventually disappeared, as did the beaver and their dams. As the dams vanished, so did the wetlands and the songbirds and waterfowl that inhabited them.
A keystone species is one that has a disproportionately large effect on its natural environment relative to its abundance, according to Wikipedia.
In Yellowstone, the wolf was a keystone species. It played a crucial role in the park’s ecosystem, keeping other populations in check. In its absence, the entire structure of the community was dangerously out of balance.
Today, the free and independent press – long the trusted watchdog of local and state government – is slowly vanishing from the American landscape. Newspaper readership and circulation has been in steady decline for a decade now, plummeting from 62.7 million in 1998 to only about 31 million in combined print and digital circulation a year ago.
The free-fall of newspaper readership was precipitated by the emergence of online news and social media and the subsequent crash in advertising revenue. The loss of critical revenue led to budget cuts and staff layoffs. As content was slashed, readership declined further.
The demographic changed. A generation of loyal newspaper readers disappeared. A new generation demanded free news and 24-hour updates. While the sheer volume of news grew, the vital connection between reader and reporter, the trusted relationship between news and the community it served, eroded.
As newspapers became increasingly vulnerable, corporations and venture capitalists pounced, acquiring local news outlets to reap short-term profits. They slashed operating costs, decimated newsrooms and abandoned the picked-over carcasses.
Newspapers began to disappear in increasingly alarming numbers. That much is now obvious.
Not yet quite so obvious has been the slow but relentless disruption of community, and of the delicate and critical balance of power that a well-informed and engaged public can exert over its increasingly unaccountable and unresponsive government.
In February 2019, The Atlantic published an article by John Temple, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News when it folded in 2009. “The worst is still to come,” he wrote. “A decade later, I’m concerned that more local journalism will suffer the same fate.”
Temple’s greatest concern, though, was for the health of our communities. He cited studies that have measured the cost of corruption when a local newspaper dies, and the direct correlation of declining news coverage to lower voter turnout.
“People need independent, reliable, fact-based reporting to help them make good decisions,” he wrote. “Democracy can’t function without it.”
In a similar vein, Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Boston’s Northeastern University, wrote, “There’s no doubt that government officials – especially those who are corrupt – fear the scrutiny of tough, independent journalism.”
In constructing a government of checks and balances, it was no accident that our founding fathers added 10 amendments to the Constitution – the first of those intended to ensure a free press. And it is no accident, nor is it historically unprecedented, that a government challenged by that free press will proclaim it fake news, and will attack and encourage attacks on both journalists and the institutions that sustain journalism.
In this slow-moving ecological disaster – as newspapers die and this country’s news deserts grow – it is the relationship of one organism to another, and to our physical surroundings, that is eroding. Local community newspapers are the keystone species – the best way, on the most intimate and immediate scale, to make democracy work.
Decades after the wolf disappeared from Yellowstone, when the full impact of its absence became apparent, the wolf was reintroduced back into its native range. Other wildlife gradually returned, as did the willow and wetlands. Overgrazed grasses grew again, and the prairie flourished.
“To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering,” wrote conservationist and philosopher Aldo Leopold. The return of wolves to the Yellowstone ecosystem restored a missing cog, integral to its landscape.
Newspapers are worth fighting for, worth saving, and well worth sustaining and investing in. We need not wait decades to know what their demise will do to our landscape, to our communities, and to our democracy. We can see it now.