“Boo-hoo,” you say?
Stay with me. Please. I’ll keep it short. Ish. I’ll keep it shortish.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a decent local newspaper – not even a really good one, like my Plain Dealer, just a decent one – then you are privileged. But the sell-by date on that privilege may be fast approaching, and it is time to take action.
I’m not going to reiterate the cultural and economic issues that plague print newspapers. If you’ve made it even this far, you already know them.
What you might not know, or quite believe, is that however long you’ve lived with your local newspaper, and however much or little you have read it, the paper has been making your community better. That’s right: EVEN IF YOU NEVER READ THE PAPER, IT HAS MADE YOUR LIFE BETTER.
How can I be so sure? Because simply by existing, the newspaper has reached readers – your neighbors, friends and community leaders – and explained their world to them. It has informed their votes, pointed them to new restaurants, and opened their eyes about corrupt politicians. Perhaps the mere existence of the press has even inspired some such politicians to stay on this side of the law. (We’ll never really know, but it’s possible.)
Now, perhaps you have some beef with your local paper. Everyone does at one time or another. My beefs can be stirred up by something as small as a typo that I think should absolutely never have seen print, and DOES ANYONE EVER EDIT THIS THING FOR GOD’S SAKE?
Perhaps your beef is beefier. Perhaps the newspaper did a story you think misquoted a friend involved in some controversial issue. Perhaps you think the writers and editors are in the bag for your political opponents. (I can find you plenty of people on the other side who say the same thing.) Perhaps you find yourself yelling at their football columnist every week. Or you think they don’t do enough investigative work. Or they write too few positive stories.
I have a list, collected over decades, of the typical gripes that people nurture about their local newspaper. I don’t laugh about them or mock them; people feel very passionate about these things, and I respect that.
But if your grievances have soured you to the point where you think your community is better off without the local rag, I’m here to tell you that you’ve lost your grip. And that you are – and I say this with affection and love – wrong with a capital WRRRRR.
Whether you love everything the paper does or not, every day that its reporters ask questions and meet captains of industry and transcribe the first versions of history, your community is better than if they weren’t doing that. Not a little better, either. A lot better.
And every day that the paper comes out, and you don’t at least glance at it, and find at least a story or two to read, you consent to making your world a little smaller than it should be. You’re a little less of an asset to those friends and neighbors who count on you to know stuff and be involved and act as a good citizen acts.
Guilt trip? So be it. Just as I passionately endorse your right to be pissed at the local paper for the ingredient they left out in last week’s recipe on the food page (does your paper still have a food page?), I passionately believe that it is impossible to be a contributing member of a healthy society without reading the local newspaper.
And don’t tell me you get all you need to know from the local TV news. TV news serves a fine function, but it does things differently. And it doesn’t come close to serving the citizenry in the way a daily or even weekly newspaper can do.
While I’m at the whole judgment-slinging thing, I will add that just as it’s also not really cool to boast how bad one is at math, it is SO uncool to boast about how one doesn’t have time to read the paper. So if you are one of those people, please be properly abashed. And if you hear one of those people boasting, tell them they’re far less sexy than you had previously thought they were, and there is absolutely no chance now that you will ever hit on them.
Here is what I’m asking.
If your local newspaper isn’t doing a good job, complain. Gripe to the editor. Write a letter. Call them to better behavior.
But for crying out loud, keep reading the paper. Challenge it to higher standards, because their writers and editors ARE the fourth estate and carry power and privilege for a reason, and it’s not to justify their mass comm degrees.
Subscribe, because for now that’s still how newspapers tell advertisers how many people read their effort. And it matters.
Buy an ad. Buy an ad for your church rummage sale. Buy a graduation announcement for your niece. Buy a big full-page display ad for your thriving business, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Be a part of the ecosystem of an informed public. It matters.
And no, it’s not too late. Our culture has slowly learned to accept the myth that newspapers are dead. But accepted ideas change all the time. Look at the Arab Spring. Look at leg warmers. Look at how people view cigarette smoking now versus just a few decades ago.
Finally, if you are a passionate newspaper reader: Thank you so much. On a personal note, you ensured a great career for me and for beloved colleagues for a long time. That’s a nice thing, though it is not the crucial thing.
Far more importantly, you get what it means to be informed, to be a reader, to think and engage and connect. If you’re a newspaper reader, you’ve made things better.
So thank you. And carry on.