Editor's Notes

The decline of daily newspapers is going to have a serious impact on open government
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tredmond@sfbg.com

Lucy Dalglish, the director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is about as much of a national leader on open-government and free-speech issues as we have in this country. She's been watching (and fighting) the battle against government secrecy for more than a quarter century as a reporter in St. Paul, a media lawyer, and since 2000 the head of RCFP. So when she sounds an alarm, it's worth listening.

And at the annual conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, she warned that the decline of daily newspapers — something those of us in the alt-media often treat as a spectator sport, jeering at the losers who for years couldn't figure out how to print news people wanted to read — is going to have a serious impact on open government.

The thing is, conservative, weak, and lame as so many dailies were, they have been the ones funding almost all of the major freedom-of-information lawsuits and organizations. The case law that protects the news media (including bloggers) from nuisance libel suits? That came from The New York Times. The law preventing the government from using prior restraint to block the publication of material it thinks might damage national security? The New York Times. The most important open-government cases in the nation? Mostly filed by medium-sized dailies like The Press Enterprise in Riverside.

I'm not here — lord knows, I'm not here — defending the likes of Knight-Ridder and Copley and Scripps-Howard, which are mostly very conservative newspaper chains that have decimated news coverage, kowtowed to the powerful, and screwed up a lot of communities. But Dalglish has a point: as the old guard in the media spirals into decline, who's going to take up the free-speech and open-government banner — and by that I mean, who's going to put up the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to file and defend these key lawsuits and keep these organizations alive?

"It isn't," Dalglish said, "going to be Google."

The Chronicle ran a story June 29th talking about the growing discussion of the need to reform Proposition 13. It was mostly a political piece, looking at the popularity of the measure and the complications of trying to change a law that has pretty much defined public finance in California for 30 years.

Robert Cruickshank at Calitics.com brought up something in response to the Chron story that hadn't really occurred to me:

"Since 1978," he wrote, "California has experienced two massive housing bubbles. The 1980s bubble, which seemed large at the time, was primarily focused on California and caused widespread unaffordability before the 1989 crash. The 2000s bubble was a nationwide phenomenon, but Prop. 13 played a role by removing a brake on housing inflation. If homeowners saw tax assessments rise in relation to their values, instead of being largely fixed at the rate at the time of purchase, it seems unlikely we would have had the enormous and destructive boom and bust in the housing market we witnessed."

So Prop. 13 causes high housing prices. Probably high rents, too. Worth thinking about. *