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Slimantics: The Founding Fathers had it right: newspapers are essential

 

Slim Smith

 

 

This is going to sound a bit self-serving, I realize, but newspapers -- no matter the platform -- are essential to nation's welfare, something our Founding Fathers realized from the start. 

 

In fact, our U.S. Constitution, as originally crafted, was insufficient in laying out the framework of our country. Three years after the Constitution was ratified, a group of 10 amendments were added to ensure rights that had not been included in the original document. 

 

The first of those amendments ensured freedom of speech and "of the press." The Founders made specific mention of the press, even though it might have been protected by the "freedom of speech" guarantee. The Founders wanted no ambiguity when it comes to a free press. It was just that important. 

 

Today, the press is being attacked in one way the Founders probably anticipated and in another way they could not. 

 

President Trump has attacked the press repeatedly, calling it "Fake News," claiming on more than one occasion that journalists are "enemies of the people," and suggesting that libel laws be changed to restrain the media. 

 

Politicians have been making claims of unfair coverage for generations, but few had taken it to the extreme we see today. 

 

Trump's diatribes will someday pass, of course. 

 

The greater threat to the free press has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with economics. 

 

Newspapers throughout the country continue to fail. Many that remain have greatly reduced their staffing as the newspaper industry struggles to survive. 

 

This week, Alden Global, a hedge fund with a reputation for milking the newspapers it acquires, made a hostile take-over bid of Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, with more than 100 daily newspapers (including USA Today) and more than 1,000 weeklies. 

 

Even before the take-over bid, Gannett had built its own reputation for, uh, austerity, cutting staff to satisfy shareholders at almost all of its properties. 

 

Other corporate newspaper companies, McClatchy for example, are employing similar tactics as newspapers continue to struggle to meet shareholder demands. 

 

Newspapers in Jackson (Gannett) and on the coast (McClatchy) are now operating with what can only be described as skeleton staffs after deep cuts to staffing, especially among its most accomplished senior staff. 

 

The same thing is happening all over the country. 

 

Only in the newspaper business would the idea of reducing the quality of its product be seen as viable strategy. 

 

All across the country -- in big cities and small towns -- the loss of the daily newspaper, and the unique role it plays, is leading to a less-informed citizenry. 

 

No knock on television -- there are some things TV news does exceptionally well, better than newspapers -- but TV is ill-equipped to fill the void left when a daily newspaper closes shop. 

 

A TV news broadcast devotes an average of 68 seconds to a news story, which would be only a few paragraphs in print. TV often provides an overview of a story, but cannot -- and does not -- provide the depth of reporting and context that newspapers alone provide. 

 

Social media, with its ocean of pseudo-news outlets, can fill the gap in some respects, but the lack of accountability often leads to poor, even dishonest, reporting. A reader is as likely to be misinformed as informed. 

 

And, of course, when it comes to local news, social media is essentially composed of little more than gossip. 

 

Years ago, I remember remarking to someone that I did not know a single well-informed person who did not read a daily newspaper. 

 

I still believe that is true today. 

 

There is much speculation about the future of newspapers and whether they can long endure as a commercial enterprise. 

 

But if newspapers cease to exist, something that is happening right now all over the country, it is a loss not only for those who own or invest in newspapers, but for every citizen who relies on them to provide the news they need to make informed decisions about their neighborhoods, towns, states, nation and, yes, the world. 

 

Again at the risk of sounding self-serving, supporting your local newspaper through subscriptions and advertising is an exercise in citizenship. 

 

Thomas Jefferson realized this long ago, writing: 

 

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep it. Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

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