Once upon a time, having a job at a newspaper meant working in one of the most imposing buildings in town, inhaling the acrid aroma of fresh ink and the dusty breath of cheap newsprint and feeling mini-earthquakes under our feet every time the presses started to roll. For those of us old enough to remember those days, National Newspaper Week 2019 could be one big, fat elegiac nostalgia trip.
Today, many newspapers are ditching the imposing buildings for low-rent storefronts and have outsourced the printing. Those could be the newspapers that are left. My hometown had three daily newspapers when I was a kid. Now it’s down to one that shows up in print just three days a week. Youngstown, Ohio, just became the first major American city without any newspaper at all. As University of North Carolina professor Penny Abernathy has documented, upwards of 1,300 communities that had newspapers in 2004 now have none. But if we ink-stained wretches fall prey to the temptation to spend National Newspaper Week crying in our beers, we’d be wasting an opportunity.
Real newshounds don’t wallow in the cozy memories of a sepia-stained past. We are about the now and the next. Our job has always been to help our communities recognize the challenges of today and turn them into the tomorrow’s promise. The future of democracy is inextricably bound up with the future of a free press. So here, dear readers, are some facts you need to know:
Newspapers: More than a medium
Increasingly, for both younger and older readers, that low-grade paper with come-off-on-your-hands ink is being replaced by bits and bytes that light up your phone or tablet or computer.
What can’t be replaced, however, and what should never be made obsolete is the primary function that newspapers have traditionally performed: Deploying small armies of reporters, photographers and editors to find and produce stories on everything from natural disasters to political scandals to your neighbor’s golden wedding anniversary, to catch the mistakes before they make it into print and to correct them when they do (hey, we’re human).
You never paid for news
Those quarters you plunk into a newspaper box don’t come close to covering what it costs to produce the news. The high cost of public service journalism has always been subsidized by advertisers. The internet broke that model. Newspaper advertising revenue has nosedived to levels that are less than one-third of what they were in 2005, a study from the Pew Research Center found. The result: Newspapers employed fewer than half the people in 2016 that they did around 2000.
Social media ≠ news. It’s not free
Not everyone who’s publishing via smartphone and YouTube is a promising writer or videographer giving voice to underserved communities. A lot are peddlers of propaganda, snake oil, disinformation and dissension.
Nor is social media as free as it seems: We pay by providing our personal data every time we log on. And social media sites deliver information that’s likely to keep you on their sites: A resident of Moberly, Missouri ,who shops at Cabela’s and is Facebook “friends” with President Trump supporters is likely to get a very different news feed on Facebook than one who lives in New York City, listens to NPR and “likes” former President Obama’s page. It’s a recipe for never having your received opinions challenged or your mind changed.
You can do something about this
What readers can do this National Newspaper Week is become more mindful about their information diet. Right now, a lot of us are living on nutrition-free snacks, but there are still plenty of sources of whole-grain news out there. Here are some ways to recognize purveyors of real news: Do they sometimes make you a bit uncomfortable by raising doubts about what you thought to be true? Do they make it easy for you to reach a real human being if you have a question or a complaint? Do they correct their mistakes? Do they ask you to subscribe or donate? Because gathering facts costs money.
Yes, supporting real news is a more expensive proposition for readers than it used to be, but it’s cheap when you consider what you’re really paying for. As one bumper sticker says, “Support democracy: Subscribe.”
Kathy Kiely is a veteran reporter and editor who now teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.