There was a period in the late ‘60s when the Beach Boys, desperate for a hipper identity, reportedly considered shortening their name to “Beach.”
Of course, the Backstreet Boys may perform into their ‘80s, but there’s no question that a dated name can take a toll.
Take the newspaper. With an emphasis on “paper,” it sounds very retro. And of course, it is. The first newspaper was published in this country in 1690. As early as the 18th century, American newspapers flourished with the same core elements we still see in the 20th century: ink on paper reporting events in the local community.
This week, Oct. 2-8, marks National Newspaper Week, a few days set aside to celebrate one of the most successful consumer products of all time. What else has sold for pennies for much of three centuries, with a majority of the public making use of it?
What other industry has spent centuries challenging people in power and working daily to protect the people who are not?
What other business was top of mind for that first generation of Americans when they decided they needed protection from potential government abuse, ensuring freedom of the press with the ratification of the Bill of Rights?
The scope of newspaper reporting worldwide remains astonishing. Yes, broadcast and cable networks, magazines, large news websites, local television and radio all do some original reporting. But that coverage pales by comparison to what is generated by newspaper newsrooms.
The majority of news you see reported, cited or transformed into a meme began in a newspaper newsroom. Major newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today share coverage globally, but thousands of smaller papers do the same by sharing their news articles with the world via the Associated Press.
Skeptical? I suggest that you pull out your phone or — for irony’s sake — a piece of paper, and watch tonight’s local TV newscast. Tune into a local radio station for its five minutes of news. Tally the total number of stories and see how many actually involve reporting by the station’s newsroom. How many stories just sound like they were pulled from a newspaper? They may well have been. Then hop onto your Facebook or Twitter feed and see how many posts link to newspaper articles. If they link to other media, click to see where those outlets got their information.
Why are other media so dependent on newspapers? Because they always have been. Veteran broadcast journalists will tell you that newspapers have long acted as a tip sheet. Find an interesting local story in the paper and then try to tell the story in a more compelling way with video and audio. Even newsrooms that have faced staffing reductions typically still have twice the resources of their broadcast rivals.
So why all this chest-beating on behalf of newspapers? It’s all about ensuring the survival of something that has served society so well for so long.
There’s been a dramatic shift in this country in the 21st century. Advances in digital technology have dramatically expanded the ways news can be delivered, and younger generations prefer screens to paper. No surprise there. Technical progress is transformative.
What’s of more concern, though, is a cultural shift. In a deeply polarized nation, many seem unable or unwilling to make a distinction between the biased pundits of cable TV and their neighbors who publish their local paper. Many can recite all the details of America’s outrage of the moment, but have no idea what their local city council did last week — and seemingly don’t care.
Newspapers can survive — and have survived — most everything thrown at them over a span of centuries. Digital delivery can still serve our communities, long after print papers are gone. Newspapers cannot, however survive lack of interest in local news and events.
Have we come to the point where we no longer care about our local tax rate, schools, employment, hospitals and businesses? Surely we recognize that MSNBC won’t be at our school board meeting and that Fox News won’t be monitoring our county commission. Do we understand that if we don’t support newspapers now, there will be no one keeping an eye on any local government body?
The name “newspapers” may be clouding our vision. Once the “papers” are gone, we will still need the news.
Newspapers need our support and subscriptions. Their medium may be outdated, but their mission is not.
Ken Paulson is the director of the nonpartisan Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
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