“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” --Thomas Jefferson
The author of the Declaration of Independence understood that newspapers play a critical role in the lifeblood of a democracy. Journalism in the United States for 250 years has played the critical role of government and community watchdog, holding those in power accountable to the people for their decisions and actions. This is a responsibility imbued in newspapers by readers who rely on them to shine a light on the darkest corners of American life, to find truths and spur conversation.
Over the course of history, newspapers have served these roles with distinction, pulling back the veil on many of the nation’s worst instincts and helping us come to terms with the need to reverse course. Newspapers played a critical role in reversing systematic racial oppression, vast environmental degradation and wasteful military excursions, to name just three of hundreds of issues illuminated by newspapers. Of course, most of the critical revelations delivered by newspapers occur at the local level, whether explaining why your electric bill is so high, exposing no-show government jobs or the decrepit state of local education, uncovering corruption in the local sheriff’s department, or simply helping you understand whether your tax dollars are being spent wisely.
Contrary to what you see on television and in the movies, journalists work unglamorous jobs, sitting through county council and school board meetings, examining databases, researching facts on the internet and in the public library, and talking to scores of ordinary people about their daily lives – in order to bring you what is often referred to as “the first draft of history.”
Newspapers serve as gathering places for communities in ways that no social medium can offer. They encourage community conversation about issues important in our daily lives and provide information about local events, activities, ideas and milestones, focusing on the local community like no other medium. Even in the digital age, maybe especially now, we still identify politically, socially and economically with people who share our sense of place right here. Our local newspaper unites us and helps us understand what it means to live, work and play here. The local newspaper – whether read in paper form or digitally – is our common connection.
Subscribers to their local newspapers are supporting community news that enlightens and explains what is happening where no one is looking. “I’m paying for a woman to go sit in a room and make sure that if something happens to affect actual bodies of people in my community, I know about it,” said Janielle Kastner, a playwright who never read a newspaper until she spent months following journalists – and then subscribed to her local paper and wrote a play about it.
The free exchange of ideas critical to a democracy is impossible without knowledge of actual conditions, the dissemination of which falls to newspapers and no one else. For all the talk of “citizen journalists” shooting phone video of shocking events, no one performs the role of contextualizing that information like newspapers. Hewing to a strict code of ethics, professional reporters and editors do more than gather information; they compare it to historical events, relate it to contemporaneous conditions and find experts to propose likely implications.
Newspapers are your ally, speaking truth to power. People, particularly those who wield power, sometimes question the right of journalists to ask difficult questions. Professional journalists do not merely have a right to ask those questions; they have an obligation to their readers and their communities at large to do so. Without them, corruption flourishes and democracy fails.
In smaller communities like ours, newspapers play another important role: they support liberty, justice and prosperity in their local community. By providing a marketplace for readers and advertisers to connect, newspapers facilitate robust commerce and boost economic vitality.
It wasn’t long ago that people in every community across America felt a connection with their hometown through their local newspaper and understood the essential civic role it played. That role has not diminished; the need for professional journalists to help us define who we are has not wavered. We all have a stake in the continued survival of our local newspaper.