Two items in the Oct. 27 issue of the News & Observer were particularly distressing.

The first was a front-page story, along with several sidebars, regarding shenanigans carried on by former governor Mike Easley. Previous articles had revealed shady real estate deals that got the guv a big discount on a waterfront lot, and too much behind-the-scenes involvement in getting his wife a cushy job planning lectures at North Carolina State University.

In hearings before the state board of elections on Oct. 26, Easley’s good friend and former chair of North Carolina State University’s board of trustees, McQueen Campbell, admitted that he had provided nearly $100,000 in free but unreported airplane flights for Easley. Further, Easley had asked Campbell to arrange $11,000 in repairs and upgrades to his personal home, then had him reimbursed from campaign funds that pretended to be for “unbilled flights.” Doubtless, there is more scum to come.

The second story, less prominent at the bottom of a page in the B section, reported that newspaper circulation for April-September 2009 was down 10.6 percent from the same period in 2008, suggesting that the long-term decline in newspaper circulation is accelerating.

It has already gotten so bad that award-winning newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have shut down their print editions this year. Others are under intense stress as readers migrate to free news on the Internet or display news apathy altogether.

Here’s the problem with that: as disquieting as news about the former governor’s misbehavior is – along with previous stories about other officials – it’s something the public needs to know. Public officials need to be held accountable, and no one does that better than good journalists.

It’s likely, however, that none of those stories would have come to light if not for the faithful digging of newspaper reporters. With advertising down even more than subscribers, news budgets are shrinking and so are newspaper staffs. Not only are there fewer pages in the paper, but also fewer reporters digging for important stories.

Sadly, many Americans still don’t appreciate what newspapers do for them: a Pew Trust study published in March 2009 showed that only 43 percent of Americans said the loss of their local paper would be a detriment to the community. Just 33 percent said they would personally miss the local paper if it ceased to exist.

Something’s rotten in the state of American minds. Dependable, investigative, community-oriented journalism is essential for an accountable and truly democratic society. If Americans want to maintain real freedom, they ought to be willing to pay the price, including the minor cost of a quality newspaper.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.

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