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, recently became the first major American city without any newspaper at all. As University of North Carolina professor Penny Abernathy has documented in her groundbreaking research on the news desertification of America, upward of 1,300 communities that had newspapers of their own 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 today’s challenges and turn them into the tomorrow’s promise.
Yes, it’s awkward that one of today’s biggest challenges involves us — the newshounds. We’ve always been better at telling your story than telling our own. Yet this is your story too: The future of democracy is inextricably bound up with the future of a free press.
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 catch the mistakes before they make it into print and to correct them when they do (hey, we’re human).
At the Laurel Leader-Call, our small — very small — army of talented newspapermen and women are keeping the tradition of this grand old paper in this grand old city going strong. We refuse to back down from corruption and threats. We refuse to let decisions by a few “movers and shakers” slow our desire for the truth. We have a solemn obligation to the residents of this county — and surrounding counties — to be the watchdog you deserve.
As we have seen year after year, there are plenty of shenanigans going on in Jones County that needed — and still need — the light of an independent media to shine. National Newspaper Week is a chance to highlight those efforts, embrace the challenges of an ever-changing media landscape and continue the dedication for the truth. That has always been our goal. It always will be, too.
University of Missouri professor of journalism Kathy Kiely contributed to this editorial as part of National Newspaper Week.