A vote for newspapers is a vote for democracy

Published 4:22 pm Monday, October 5, 2020

Newspapers face another big election. It’s about them.

While the United States is riveted by a most unusual presidential election, the newspaper industry is running to win the hearts, minds and souls of “voters.”

These voters are readers, residents, subscribers, students, advertisers, marketers, sponsors and newspaper employees.

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This National Newspaper Week (Oct 4-11), vote for newspapers.

Vote by subscribing to support your local newspaper. (If you already do, a big thanks.)

Vote by advertising — cheers to current ad buyers. Patronize those who do.

Vote by engaging your newspaper. Write a letter to the editor, tweet appreciation to an enterprising reporter, send a suggestion to the publisher with a request to speak to him or her for a personal exchange.

Vote by learning more about your newspaper, its history, its mission, its staff and its ownership.

Vote by frequently checking the newspaper’s web site or news alerts.

Vote by signing up for its newsletters. And if it doesn’t have one, tell the newspaper you’re interested — especially the day’s headlines or a weekly entertainment summary of what’s happening.

Vote by adding to the newspaper’s “likes” on social media.

Vote by making a video with pro-newspaper testimonials from neighbors and friends.

Heck, put up a sign in your front yard or window boasting you’re a newspaper reader.

Fear not. This campaign to elect newspapers is winnable, but much is at stake.

Consider this passage from longtime journalist Margaret Sullivan’s 2020 book, “Ghosting the News — Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy: “Some of the most trusted sources of news — local sources, particularly local newspapers — are slipping away, never to return. The cost to democracy is great.”

For good measure, Sullivan, who is the media columnist for the Washington Post, quoted the conclusion of a major PEN American study in 2019:

“As local journalism declines,” stated the organization that champions free expression, “government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”

Democracy loses its foundation, Sullivan stated.

Vote for newspapers.

In his Aug. 16 column, H. Dean Ridings of America’s Newspapers cited the depressing study from the University of North Carolina to note that 1,800 communities have lost their local newspaper over the last 15 years.

“What would my town be without a newspaper?” the national association’s CEO wrote. “If you haven’t asked yourself that question, perhaps it is time to consider just what the newspaper means to this community.”

Among the answers Ridings provided was this:

“The most obvious is the community’s access to news about itself: the workings of its town hall; information about taxes and property values; the operation of schools for its children; the achievements, or the criminal activities, of local residents; the scores of local ball teams; schedules and reviews of movies, concerts, restaurants and books; and the offerings of local small businesses.”

This year’s National Newspaper Week should be anything but routine. It’s a time to be bold — even daring.

Newspapers  throughout the United States and Canada should use National Newspaper Week to conduct town halls — go virtual if you have to — or a series of conversations that gather answers to this simple but provocative question:

How can the newspaper become THE Community Forum?

Dig deeper on this role. Or as Sullivan put it: “After all, a newspaper’s purpose isn’t only to keep public officials accountable; it is also to be the village square for an entire metropolitan area, to help provide a common reality and touchstone, a sense of community and of place.”

It’s an important commitment.

At issue is replacing the tiresome, negative perception of newspapers’ demise with an updated mission to become THE reliable Community Forum  — sharpening knowledge of what’s on the minds of citizens; delivering trusted journalism and accurate information; gathering updated market data; attracting diverse audiences to join loyal readers; contributing to an equitable, healthy economy; fostering vibrant communities where we live, work and play; and nurturing a dynamic democracy.

In its 2020 sweeping assessment of “Trust, Media and Democracy,” the influential Knight Foundation and Gallup noted that although Americans have lost confidence in expecting an objective media, “strong majorities uphold the ideal that the news media is fundamental to a healthy democracy.”

And those majorities think the media could do “a great more” to heal political divisions in-country, Knight/Gallup added.

By becoming a true Community Forum, newspapers shift from thinking like a limited product to becoming a vital community service in big demand. It perfects inviting, listening, researching, planning, collecting, reporting, connecting, collaborating and developing solutions.

In many ways, the newspaper as THE Community Forum becomes a non-stop, informed conversation — interesting, civil, engaging, educational, timely and, of course, relevant.

To repeat: How does the newspaper become THE Community Forum?

Campaign hard. Score votes.

Newspapers have got to win this pivotal election.

Democracy wins, too.

Tom Silvestri is executive director of The Relevance Project, which advocates for community newspapers.