When Americans settled out West, residents needed certain resources to position their towns as something more than a dusty crossroads on the way to somewhere else. Included were a school, a church, and a post office.
A general store and a newspaper were essential too. In their own unique ways, stores and newspapers served as lifelines of “provisions” required to survive, and information needed to thrive.
Some things have changed since then. More recently, thanks to social media and other electronic communication, we don’t experience delays in buying supplies or getting news. With the proper app on our cell phones, we can be notified immediately when something major happens. There’s no need to wait for the print edition to be published, and no need to wait for the 6 o’clock news to be broadcast.
What we gain in immediacy, we sometimes lose in perspective. We quickly find out what happened, but not how or why. Newspapers answer those questions better than any other medium. Newspapers continue to fulfill that important role.
Yes, a changing economy and evolving needs of consumers have resulted in the downsizing of metropolitan newspapers. Newspapers in some smaller towns are closing down. There are notable exceptions, however, in various communities where residents value the essential things that identify their towns as a place more vibrant than many others. Residents work together to support their local stores, churches, schools, and newspapers.
It’s fun to look back nostalgically and remember the “good old days.” When I was still working at the Bulletin, I told groups who came for tours that, during my career, I had seen more changes in the newspaper industry than were experienced in the two centuries before I was born. In the past two decades especially, the pace has probably even increased.
Those changes have affected every aspect of our lives, but especially how we relate to each other.
Today, people don’t often clip newspaper articles about weddings, funerals, or significant personal achievements. Information can be downloaded and stored digitally. Eventually, you’ll decide to search for them on some memory stick, print them out, and record the fuzzy details of who-what-where-and-when of photos. Hopefully, the technology used to store information won’t be obsolete by the time you decide to do that.
Another one of the changes involves access to information — almost too much information, both good and bad. A newspaper employs editors to sort and review stories before distribution, check facts, and see if any questions are left unanswered. A measure of trust is built between the product and the consumer. Then, when an error is made, and errors will be made, the management is quick to offer a correction or clarification.
You say you prefer to get the news for free on social media? Here’s a scoop: Social media is often one-sided, and it’s not free. What’s more, that “free” site is probably mining data about your personal life and preferences.
Reputable operations like newspapers have an online presence, but subscribers opt in, or seek advertising support, knowing that nothing of real value is free. Such options on social media are another way of delivering honest news in the manner readers prefer.
There are exceptions, but many sources that exist only in cyberspace are propaganda machines. If your source doesn’t challenge you with information you don’t like or agree with, ignores opposing arguments, and never corrects errors, you’re not getting the information you need.
This week, October 6-12, is National Newspaper Week. Its theme is “Think F1RST,” using the numeral “one” instead of a letter. It highlights the fact that the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. While all constitutional freedoms are precious, the five listed first — free speech, religion, press, assembly, and to petition the government — were priorities for our nation’s founders.
You exercise your freedom every time you read a newspaper.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.