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Saturday, December 01, 2012

Does Your Newspaper Mean More Than You Think?

This image has little to do with the text below. It's just the stiff sketch I made after not having drawn much for a couple days.

I want to be Christmas shopping right now, but I can’t. I have to do this instead, because of all the things occupying my gray matter these days, the one item rolling around there at all times, worrying me, making me sad, is the state of the American newspaper.

“Boo-hoo,” you say?

Stay with me. Please. I’ll keep it short. Ish. I’ll keep it shortish.

Or not.

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.


valorie grace hallinan said...

This is an amazing post. Thank you for writing it. I plan to share it.
It would be a shame if the Plain Dealer goes to 3 days a week. Online is fine, but it is not a replacement for the newspaper.

David Kordalski said...

Thank you, Karen, for elegantly and clearly articulating the tangible benefits of our mutual labor of love. There's nothing quite like a newspaper to help measure the pulse of a community, its ink truly the blood coursing through a city's veins.

Great post! But of course, I would have trimmed it ... ;-)

Harlan Spector said...

Wow and thank you, Karen. You captured beautifully the heart of the matter.

Amy Kocias said...

This part of Ohio will be in a truly sad place if the Cleveland Plain Dealer goes to only three days a week. People such as you and your co-workers inform us, prod us, and yes - shake us up at times - so we can see the communities and lives around us from more than just our own perspectives. THANK YOU for what do!!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karen Sandstrom said...

And yes, in case you're interested, I deleted the above comment. It was unsigned, and so it shall be unaired.

Rudypatootie said...

You said it all so well. I can't imagine being without my daily paper. I even read other cities newspapers when I travel. I always learn something new, something entertaining, something that makes me a better person. We have subscribed for our whole married 45 years. We are consumers and we buy products we see advertised. Will do anything to keep our paper.
Ruth Jerkins

Joan & Jim Schaefer said...

Karen, I love reading the newspaper over breakfast and a cup of coffee and I agree wholeheartedly with your views on the importance of the press to the individual and the community. However, I'm almost 60 years old and people younger than me believe that the medium and delivery system are outmoded. Newsprint? Little trucks physically delivering hours-old stories? Print ads instead of Craigslist, pop-up ads and whatever the heck else shows up on our computers? Really? Sorry, but this is an old business model that sounds a lot like the post office and will not work in the future. We as a society MUST find a way to support investigative reporting, local news, etc. electronically. Please help your colleagues look to the future at the same time we all mourn what will soon be past.

Joan & Jim Schaefer said...

Regarding my last comment--and I'm the first one who needs to understand the newer media--despite the name assigned to the post, this is from Joan Schaefer, not Jim !

David said...

Loved the post, Karen (even if you didn't mention the great importance and impact of restaurant reviews.

Lisa Roberson said...

I loved to love newspapers as a small child because my grandfather told me smart, informed people read newspapers to stay smart and informed. Thank you for summing up so well what I attempt to do daily to those family and friends who refuse to read the newspaper or listen or watch any kind of news at all. Those are the ones I tell to stop voting because they are doing the entire system a disservice by refusing to get educated on the facts and issues. Those are the ones I say silent prayers to when they call me to ask what is happened in the world around them. Perfect example is a friend who called many months ago to ask why dozens of police officers were in Shaker Heights and numerous streets were blocked off. I simply told them if they took five minutes to read the paper that morning they would have known President Obama was in town so plan their travels accordingly. All news is not bad news. Most news just helps you plan and react to your life.

Amy Hanauer said...

Great post Karen, I don't know what I'd do without my daily PD and NYT

Eric Olsen said...

Great job Karen - it's astonishing we are discussing if NEOhio should have ONE daily paper. And I agree we are all better off with as many papers as possible

Anonymous said...

You're (rightfully) advocating for a daily news publication, but not necessarily a printed one. For instance, I read my local paper everyday but I pick it up maybe every couple weeks. The economics of newspapers don't work anymore, and begging people to subscribe to and advertise in a medium that no longer suits many of them is admirable, but not a business strategy.

Josh said...

PS - your blog offers anonymous comments as an option. You can probably disable that if you don't want anonymous comments.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Josh, I can disable anonymous comments. I've never wanted to do that, because sometimes it's easier for people who don't want to create an account. Most sign their names as part of the comment. And frankly, it's not the kind of blog that inspires people to make anonymous negative comments. I don't mind a dissenting view, but ya gotta be polite and ya gotta own it like a grownup.

Karen (who didn't bother signing in herself for this.)

Aberdeb said...

Excellent article. I would believe, even if I didn't work there. I feel the same about our radio stations--BUT also pay attention, it is up to you to influence the job we are doing, it is a locally produced product, so the consumer engagement makes all the difference. **And to the small businesses that we serve--please get this! You pay for the inventory, pay for people to provide service, one of the CRITICAL costs of doing business is your marketing budget (yes, I used the B-word). To not-- put as much effort and resources into getting customers to your store, website, or other place of business is ridiculous, and the sign of a business owner that is in over their head. Be creative, be assertive, but be active... in getting the word out. Word of Mouth and Facebook do not replace well placed and produced advertisements.**