Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Internet will not make newspapers obsolete any time soon

Today marks the end of National Newspaper Week, a celebration of the impact newspapers have on the daily lives of their readers.

No one knows when the idea of the newspaper originated, but historians believe the first newspapers – quite literally, papers with news printed on them – were produced in Caesar’s Rome. As the centuries rolled on, the idea of information circulated on a printed page gained popularity, and the first newspaper, as we would recognize it, was published in the early 1600s.

Through the years, it became apparent that a free press is the linchpin of any free society. The ability of independent journalists to question and hold to account the ruling government is a powerful check on tyranny. Recognizing this, the Founding Fathers gave Americans an enduring protection in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …"

Those are lofty words for lofty ideas. But the reality is that journalists do their most important work away from the spotlight. Using open meetings, open records and public notices, they pore through government legalese, sit through tedious meetings week after week, make phone call after phone call to sources who may not respond and research, write and edit their work, all in the name of getting the story for you - and being your watchdog.

Because of their constitutional guarantee, newspapers are uniquely positioned to expose even the most heinous corruption and graft, wherever it may exist.

East Alabamians know something about this.

The 1955 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service was awarded to the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger and Sunday Ledger-Enquirer, "for its complete news coverage and fearless editorial attack on widespread corruption in neighboring Phenix City, which were effective in destroying a corrupt and racket-ridden city government." According to the Pulitzer Web site, "the newspaper exhibited an early awareness of the evils of lax law enforcement before the situation in Phenix City erupted into murder. It covered the whole unfolding story of the final prosecution of the wrong-doers with skill, perception, force and courage."

Readers should expect nothing less from the only constitutionally protected profession in America.

Such history notwithstanding, newspapers have suffered a crisis of identity with the advent of the Internet. Maybe it’s because I am the fifth generation of my family to work in newspapers, or maybe it’s because I’m a traditionalist, but I’m not one who believes that the Internet will render newspapers obsolete. I can’t believe that the Internet, "information superhighway" that it is, can better meet the daily needs and answer the broad challenges of your community than your local newspaper. But it’s up to the newspaper to focus on its strengths and do them well.

The Web is about speed; newspapers are about accuracy. The Web offers unlimited opinion; newspapers are about objectivity. The Web is global; your newspaper is local. Done right, newspapers should tell the otherwise unknown stories of your town, your state, your country, your world. They should tell your stories.

Newspapers aren’t perfect. Any product that is researched, written, designed, edited, marketed and sold by human beings is bound to have flaws. But those lofty ideas undergirding newspapers’ existence call their creators to the highest of standards, and more often than not, newspapermen and women meet that mark - not for a paycheck, mind you, for journalism is among this country’s poorest-paying professional pursuits - but because they are driven by public interest, their own dreams for a better world and their intense personal desire to tell you about it.

Happy National Newspaper Week!

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