Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. published a column earlier this month in the Raleigh News and Observer with the arresting headline, “What will we do when there are no newspapers?”
Friends have told me that they do not use electronic readers because they prefer the physical feel of actual books, and others say the same about reading newspapers instead of online editions. It is the same sentiment regarding two different forms of communication, and the difference is, of course, that books are static. They do not change unless their authors issue updated editions. Newspapers, by nature, are different every day and require daily — now hourly, even second-to-second updates. As do broadcast and electronic media, they require massive volumes of information, hard news and many other kinds of stories, that require large staffs and vast amounts of money to churn out regularly.
That is one of the main reasons the newspaper — as we have known it since the inception of the United States and even before — is endangered. Newspaper readers fret about their shrinking size, both physically and in terms of content. Another big reason for their decline is that newspapers appear once a day, and much of what they tell us we already know from the internet, television and radio. The internet, CNN and other media tell us in seconds what we used to find out the next morning in our daily paper.
If — maybe when — newspapers as we know them do disappear, there will still be news, of course. The internet, CNN and other media will surely keep us informed about what the president is up to, which aspect of climate change is currently scaring us to death and what Prince Harry, Meghan and baby Archie are doing over the weekend. What we will have a much harder time learning is what our local legislative delegation is doing for — or to — us in Raleigh or when the governor is coming to town. If no one is reporting on our city council or county commissioners, it is more convenient for us to attend those meetings ourselves than it is to take a road trip to the General Assembly in Raleigh. Realistically, though, most of us are not going to make the effort.
Hence, Leonard Pitts’ scary column, which points out a 2018 University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism report that we have lost nearly 1,800 newspapers across our nation since 2004. The future is upon us, and it looks devoid of newspapers and local and regional journalism.
Here is how Pitts describes our situation.
“The passing of newspapers would have a devastating impact on the coverage of local events. The hole they leave would not be filled by CNN, whose original reporting tends to center on national — usually political — news. It would not be filled by local TV, whose original reporting tends to begin and end with street crime, weather and sports. And it would not be filled by social media, whose original reporting tends to be nonexistent.
“Bottom line, it would not be filled. If you’re living in a news desert and the mayor is crooked, the cops corrupt or the businessmen pervy, how would you know? Chances are, you would not.”
The demise of newspapers is a clear case of not appreciating what we have until we lose it. We newspaper readers have taken it for granted that local and regional reporters will keep us informed about actions that affect us, especially governmental actions. We have taken it for granted that local newspaper editorial staffs will help interpret the world around us and what it means for us and our families.
It is increasingly our own responsibility to find outlets we can trust not just to feed us their points of view but to give us concrete and truthful information. It is increasingly our own responsibility to interpret what we learn and what it means for our communities.
It is all we can do until new local and regional media emerge in whatever forms they take.