Life As We Know It: August 12, 2013

      I accepted an invitation to speak to a men’s discussion group recently because the topic interests me a great deal: the future of newspapers.

     The group’s format is simple: they choose a book that they all read and discuss, and then they invite somebody in with a professional connection to share his perspective. The book they had assigned themselves is called “American Carnival, Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media,” by Neil Henry.

     The basic point I tried to make to the gentlemen, most of whom are professional people, is that while the economic realities of the new millennium are forcing newspapers to evolve into something that ultimately may look a lot different, we all had better hope the print media survive in some form, doing what good newspapers have always done.

     I call it shining a flashlight in dark corners, and no independent, non-governmental entity in our society has traditionally had the tools or the desire to do it like newspapers can.

     I’m proud that The Blade invested the manpower and resources necessary to report the Brush-Wellman beryllium series, the Tiger Force atrocities in Vietnam (which won a Pulitzer Prize), and the Coingate scandal – to name three relatively recent examples.

     I’m equally proud that other newspapers our size and many a lot smaller are shining flashlights in their own communities. We all need to hope that endures.

     But beyond the investigative reporting, a newspaper’s mere presence in a community should always be a source of comfort that somebody, some institution, some independent voice, has the citizens’ collective back.

     I was editor of a Block Communications, Inc. newspaper in Monterey, Calif., for several years. Not only was the front door of the building open to the public, so were the doors to the news department. That meant anybody with a complaint against City Hall or the IRS – or about us for that matter – could waltz right in and make his or her case.

     People who felt put upon or disenfranchised had some place to go where they would not be turned away. It was exasperating sometimes, but we accepted these interruptions with a grudging appreciation for the special place the newspaper office represented for the community.

     In the age of 9/11, however, newspapers have had to beef up security. This means guards at the entrances, electronic IDs for employees, and an unfortunate “fortress” mentality. In the world we live in now, prudence demands that we have to lock out people we once welcomed with no questions asked. I’m surprised we don’t require a password.

     The point is that a newspaper is a unique asset in a community. Part crusader, part muckraker, part font of freely dispensed information, part provider of a coupon good for 50 cents off on a bottle of catsup, and yes, part occasional irritant.

     If the day comes when all of that is gone, if that unique relationship between a newspaper and its readers is lost, if information is only available electronically from unseen bloggers and unprincipled websites oblivious to the greater good, something critically important to a free and open society will have been forfeited.

     As we go more and more electronic in the dissemination of news, it will be tougher to persuade young people accustomed to text messaging and instant gratification to invest in the grunt work of journalism. I like to say that for 42 years I worked in a “skeptic tank,” reporting the news, and later, as an editor, challenging authority.

     I truly believe that good journalism will survive. But if good newspapers do not, it will be a whole lot harder to find.

twalton@theblade.com

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