Next week, Oct. 7-13, is the 78th National Newspaper Week, which recognizes and promotes the contributions of newspapers and their employees across the country.
Each year, it seems a little more challenging to define what we mean by “contributions,” as they are literally eroding. Shrinkage continues among daily newspapers — in sheer numbers, and in the pages they produce. More have been shuttered, or absorbed into neighboring publications. Many have retreated to five or six editions a week rather than seven. Consolidation by profit-driven chains or faceless investment firms has driven down total employment of journalists, and reduced or eliminated other publishing career paths. Much of the newspaper industry’s decline has been self-inflicted by a mania for huge profit margins, as well as delayed and often ineffectual responses to the challenges of digital media.
This year’s National Newspaper week theme is “Journalism matters. Now more than ever.” I believe it. But that is only meaningful insofar as the public knows and accepts what we mean by “journalism.” Our own definition is traditional, consistent and simplistic. We gather and deliver credible information that is useful to our readers and communities, with high standards for accuracy, timeliness, fairness, reliability, completeness and appropriate context. For most of us in the newspaper business, that formula is immutable. At its best, there is no separation between ideals and practice in journalism.
Which, ironically, makes us the perfect foils for the purveyors of “fake news.” We’ve always had to deal with charlatans, hucksters, manipulators and outright prevaricators, but they didn’t have the social media access and visibility they now enjoy. More problematic, they now have credibility with many consumers. In the communication tsunami that engulfs the world every day, the voices of reason, truth and effective human interaction are drowned out by the dissident, agitated roar of false information.
I suppose if you want to strictly parse it, information can’t be false. Anything else is just untrue. Even the term “fake news” is an oxymoron. If it’s legitimately news, it can’t be fake. So let’s just call it what it is: crass dissembling with a political, social or purely disruptive motive. It’s a threat to our society at a fundamental level.
What should we be doing about that? Within the newspaper industry, there is a debate over whether publishers and editors should be more assertive about their publications’ roles and responsibilities. Many argue that we should vigorously fight back against the ugly, totalitarian assault on journalism and democracy that is being aggressively waged from the White House, characterizing us as “the enemy.” Others contend that we should stick to the high road, be dignified, keep our heads down and just keep doing our jobs, because the truth will win out.
I want to believe the second point of view, but as a practical matter I support the first. A noble death is still death. We need to loudly make our own case for the value of journalism in a democratic society, and not assume that the public will support us out of habit or unshakeable trust.
We’ve been offered a lot of materials — columns and editorials from around the country, and some generic ads — that we could use in this publication to promote National Newspaper Week. You can find them yourself at www.nationalnewspaperweek.com. They are often strident in tone. I’m OK with that. We’re not going to get anywhere with lofty pontificating.
The world of what I really think of as community journalism — which includes the hundreds of weekly newspapers around the country — hasn’t escaped the industry’s financial turmoil, nor has it entirely dodged the political bullet. But by virtue of the bonds we have built with our communities, we are in general faring a bit better than the dailies.
That doesn’t mean we are complacent or unaware of the challenges we face. At the annual convention of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (WNPA) in Yakima next week, our program agenda includes topics such as “Print isn’t dead, and what you can do to keep it that way,” “The new newsroom: new content strategies,” “How to succeed in today’s digital world” and “Five things community newspapers can and must do right now to increase readership and revenue.” As a past president of the WNPA, I’ve had a hand in shaping similar convention programs — practical, realistic and grounded in the idea that we can survive as vital elements in our communities.
I’m grateful every day for the Methow Valley community’s support, and take seriously the trust you place in this newspaper. I think you do believe that “journalism matters.” As for “now more than ever” — that’s a constant.