Guest Commentary: A free press good for a healthy democracy

Newspapers compile and publish all sorts of information. School photos and 4-H award stories that we post on our refrigerator door and in our scrapbooks. Advertisements that help us decide what to buy. Friday night sports highlights. Cartoons. Obituaries. Coupons. Classifed ads. And much, much more.

That's why it's important we devote some space during this week — National Newspaper Week — to illuminate why newspapers matter and why the work they do in our communities matters.

The news coverage that newspapers devote to government is critical. It helps keep citizens informed about the business of government. Plus, good independent journalism does more to keep government honest and clean than any politician ever can.

Watchdog journalism occurs at all levels every day in South Dakota. Every time a newspaper devotes a Monday or Tuesday evening to a school board or city council meeting, the local press is fulfilling that important role. Every time a newspaper reporter asks about government spending or government secret meetings, an independent, free press is at work.

Want proof? Consider the following excellent examples of a free press at work in South Dakota, all happening within a matter of a few weeks:

The Yankton Press & Dakotan's Shauna Marlette recently reported about the difficulties getting access to the Yankton school superintendent's employment contract. The school district finally relented. Marlette also reported how easy it was to get copies of similar contracts from other schools in the state.

The Press & Dakotan stories led to follow-up reporting by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader about why the Sioux Falls public school superintendent refused to release her employment contract. That has led to several legislators and the governor saying they will support a change in state law to make it clear that all public officials' employment contracts are public records.

State government will make auditing changes in overseeing the private company that pursues bad debts owed to state government because of reporting by Bob Mercer for a group of daily newspapers. Mercer's story led a legislative committee initiating a hearing on the matter to learn about the changes being made by the state. 

That same legislative committee also discussed sales tax collections reporting errors with the state treasurer and state revenue department. Those sales tax collection reporting errors were brought into the light only because of reporting done by Mercer.

The Argus Leader's Megan Luther recently reported that the state would release results of a taxpayer-funded emergency 911 study after officials initially denied the request made by the Argus Leader. The Argus Leader later reported the study results once they were released.

Perhaps not at the same level as unwrapping the Watergate cover-up, but all good examples of watchdog journalism at work in South Dakota nevertheless.

Our society needs a fair, independent press free from government intrusion or censorship. Our Founding Fathers understood it and it's up to us to remember it and live it. A healthy democracy demands a free press as expressed in the First Amendment of United States Constitution.

And so in this National Newspaper Week, we salute the good work that South Dakota newspapers do every day in fulfilling that important role in our communities and in our state.

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