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Commentary: Newspapers still matter


Last week I went to Springfield, Illinois to do some workshops for a program called NewsTrain, which is sponsored by a number of journalism organizations and foundations.

The idea was to provide reporters and editors, a fair number of them from Michigan, with tools to do their jobs in what was described as a “rapidly changing media setting.” Translated, that means a world where fewer reporters are supposed to do more work on multiple media platforms at the same time. 

Newspapers always have been a backbone of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson once said that he’d prefer newspapers without government to a government without newspapers.

Though, like other politicians, he appeared to change his mind once he got to be President.

Newspaper work was never highly paid and was always stressful. Reporters and editors who do their jobs right have never been very popular. That’s because they are in the necessary if unpleasant business of telling us what’s wrong.

Newspapers tell us the city council is incompetent and the mayor is corrupt. That crime is increasing, the roads are falling apart, and the schools aren’t teaching Susie how to read.

Radio and TV journalism do some things very well. But the broadcast media can’t analyze the impact of tax bills in detail or provide daily coverage of the Grand Rapids school board.

Back in ancient times, say, the 1980s, it was clear what the role of newspapers was, and most newspapers were economically sound. Then everything changed. Classified advertising fled to the Internet. Newspapers put their content online for free, then were surprised people didn’t want to pay for it anymore.

To try and cope, newspapers demanded their reporters become multimedia. Here’s one item from a list an editor of a small Michigan paper gave her reporters a few months ago: “Did you shoot video of local residents during the city council meeting, process it during the meeting and post it on our website before the meeting ended?” While, of course, writing a story and sending out tweets about it.

Try to imagine Woodward and Bernstein trying to cover Watergate that way. The workshops in Springfield were mainly dedicated to new media techniques. I learned, for example, from one, that you could sit in your apartment and learn which of your neighbors are online and what they are posting on the Internet.

There’s also all sorts of other techniques to find witnesses of disasters electronically. Lots of this is good and beneficial.

But that’s not what I talked about. Instead, I told them that they needed to rely mostly on the oldest new media tool ever invented, which was the human brain. That what they did was crucial for democracy and their communities, even if they didn’t get much support for it, let alone make an adequate salary.

That while we are drowning these days in Jennifer Aniston “news,” they were the only hope the citizens of Ionia or Flint had of making sense out of how their worlds worked. Afterwards, a woman who works for a tiny paper called the Sturgis Journal came up to me. She said, “nobody ever tells us what we do is important.  Thank you.”

I felt good about that. And terrible at the same time.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.