It’s become almost cliché to suggest that newspapers are living on borrowed time. But like so much conventional wisdom, such a suggestion fails to recognize the pivotal role that newspapers still play in their communities— and will likely continue to play for the foreseeable future. That’s something worth reflecting on during National Newspaper Week, which runs through Oct. 13.
Newspapers tell the story of the communities they serve, and that’s a role that isn’t going away, at least not if we hope to continue to live in a functioning democracy. Small town newspapers, in particular, have a broad mission, one that is integral to life in a small community. It’s the place most people still turn to for coverage of the elementary concert or last Friday’s high school football game. It’s where we learn that the local garden club has a home tour next week, or that the coffee shop on the corner has new owners. It’s where we learn about a local tragedy, or see the joy on the faces of new, young parents as they pose with their little one.
It’s where we read about the successes and milestones of those who share our common bond of community.
It’s often said that newspapers write the first draft of history, and it’s true even in small towns where little of consequence ever seems to happen. Life, even the quiet pace that we covet in small towns, is the bread and butter of community journalism. It’s our collective story, recounted in these ink-stained pages each week for less than the price of a cup of coffee.
Newspapers tell our story, and that story includes how we govern ourselves. Our nation’s founders recognized the importance of that role, which is why they enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights. They well understood that a democratic system of government could not survive without an informed electorate.
While elected officials like to pretend otherwise, in truth, they are regularly influenced by the watchful eye of their local newspaper. At the Timberjay office, we still recount the comment by a former member of the Orr City Council, during a tumultuous time in that city’s history. In a closed meeting, for which we later obtained an audio tape, the councilor warned: “We have to mind our p’s and q’s with the Timberjay watching.”
He didn’t mean it in a complimentary way, but those of us in the Timberjay news room could only smile for what his comment truly revealed: We were doing our jobs.
It’s a job that makes a difference. In an era of increasing newspaper consolidation and closures, the loss of newspapers is being felt in some places. A recent study by a pair of Notre Dame economists found that the cost of government went up when the local newspaper shut its doors. The researchers looked at more than 1,500 newspapers around the U.S. that operated between 1996 and 2015. In 296 cases, the newspaper in question closed, and when it did, the researchers found that the cost of government increased beyond the rate of communities that still had their watchdog in place.
Newspapers are clearly in a period of transition and no one really knows whether the printed product will survive given the digital revolution. But one thing is for sure. We still want and need the news. Social media may be a tool for sharing content, but it won’t give you a detailed and accurate account of what happened at the Cook city council meeting last Thursday night. Only a trained journalist, working for a newspaper, can do that. Which is why newspapers are going to be around for a long time to come.