I’ve been thinking lately about what I really want for Christmas … especially this year, when “peace on earth, good will to all” seems in such short supply.
My family tells me I’m tough to shop for. I like what I have; I certainly don’t need more. So in the interest of making life easy for anyone who’s thinking of sending me presents, I’ve pondered long. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Please subscribe — or resubscribe — to your local daily newspaper.
Not for me, exactly, nor precisely for yourself.
Do it for all of us. Do it for the America we want to live in.
Now, maybe this seems a little out of character for someone who writes for The Extra and the blog unheralded.fish — two platforms that we love to share with you absolutely free. I believe we offer invaluable service, and I’d be most obliged if you keep on reading! But as a veteran of the traditional newspaper business and a fervent believer in an informed society, I truly hope you’ll also take me up on this helpful hint. It’s absolutely the best idea you’ll see this holiday season.
Why would I be peddling daily newspapers, pray tell? One big, fat, undeniable reason: Without the vigilance of observant professional journalists — day in, day out, in moments that are overstuffed with “news” and at others when nothing much happens — our nation will be lost.
If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard bits of the raging debate over “fake news” delivered on the Web. Some astute observers blame (or credit) the flurry of frankly faux headlines with tipping the outcome of the election. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the parent of the juggernaut called Facebook, concedes false content is stickier and more viral than more sober and accurate stories.
On the Saturday after the election, Zuck sought to minimize his brainchild’s impact on the tone and temper of America 2016. While pledging to sort the grains of truth from the chaff, he contended that “more than 99 percent of what people see on Facebook is authentic.” As one of the zillions addicted to his social medium, I beg to differ. But why quibble? His Facebook statement (you can read it here) means that, now, 100 percent of users acknowledge it’s bad policy to swallow everything you read online.
Of course, it’s prudent to take each word you read or hear — online, on air and on paper -— with a grain of sodium chloride. Or perhaps we all need an even larger dose, a payload of salt the size of the dump trucks that de-ice our winter highways.
But any reasonable observer must understand that differing degrees of trustworthiness are native to the news we absorb in its infinite forms. By any measure, the most reliable — the sanest — the hands-down likeliest to build its stories from actual facts, tested and found true by concrete, real-world definitions — is still the daily newspaper.
Staffed by a dedicated though dramatically shrunken corps of committed and hard-working journalists, newspapers are perhaps the last medium that still strives every day to throw a bright light on the entire truth. They still aspire to hold the front line in separating propaganda from facts embedded in promotional fluff. They work weird hours for crappy pay for a motive that’s fallen out of favor in an era of clickbait and cut-throat ratings: They toil to keep citizens — us! — in touch with what our governments, corporations and individual citizens are really up to.
Oh, yes, I recognize their stumbles. I’m at least as fierce a critic of newspaper missteps as you, and possibly far tougher. That’s because I belonged to the newsroom tribe myself for the first decade of my career. I may see their shortcomings more sharply and judge them much more harshly than a “civilian” might … at least, a civilian who reaches beyond the facile cheap shots that mobs of partisans lob around today.
But my quibbles, large and small, originate from a place of respect and trust. There is no one on Earth in whom I have more confidence, in the long run, than the smart, seasoned, tough-minded journalists who still manage — against all probability — to hang on in embattled newsrooms. No one is more aware than they of the multitude of ways that newsmakers encroach on their opportunities to observe firsthand and draw neutral, objectively honest conclusions. No one tries harder to discern and report the truth.
And no one is more aware of being an endangered species. The profession of journalism is desperately wracked by layoffs within and scorn outside traditional news organizations. Just ask them: They’ve watched dozens, hundreds, thousands of superb, wise reporters flung off the merry-go-round as the news business spins wildly in ever-more-erratic circles, attempting to survive in a digital universe where the odds are frankly stacked against it.
Sure, the newspaper can drive you nuts sometimes. Sometimes I joke that I read my morning paper just to make sure my blood pressure hasn’t sunk too low overnight. That doggoned daily edition gets me going faster than the very first drops of plasma that gurgle out of the coffeemaker. Just ask my husband! Sometimes it makes me crazy.
But that’s what good newspapers, and good journalists, are supposed to do: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. The wise and generous editor who made me who I am today used to say that we newshounds needed to celebrate, rather than regret, the ruckus our readers occasionally kicked up in our faces: “That means they’re reading us.”
Journalists don’t always get it right, or get the whole panoramic story. But I’d trust those professional writers and editors, with their venerable, time-tested habits of questioning and reflecting and corroborating what they’ve been told, a thousand times sooner than the idle chatter and self-serving half-truths (quarter-truths? 1 percent truths?) on social media.
I’m sad to report that most of my peers (the generation that still reads ink on paper) no longer subscribe to our local daily newspaper. They’ve canceled their subscriptions for one very good reason or another — maybe a columnist they abhor, maybe the abortive SheSays, maybe an editorial endorsement or a sports match that was overlooked or a story they deemed slanted.
Or maybe they just wanted to save $59 per quarter. They figure they can read much of it for free online. Or perhaps they think that if something important happens, they’ll hear about it … somehow. Perhaps on Facebook.
Meanwhile, they’re starving the one and only profession whose highest goal is the telling of the truth. Today, instead, the big bucks go to wildly profitable enterprises that gather and profit from the very same stories that originate among the rare and priceless profession whom they no longer support.
When the newspapers vanish, so will go the lifeblood of a well-informed and responsible citizenry. Knowledge, rather than the specious ignorance spawned by “news” that is solely propaganda, is only nutrition that can keep our America healthy.
Should you do this as a gift for me? I was kidding about that. Sort of. I want you to subscribe to your local daily newspaper for yourself. We’ll all be better off in the long run.