We still need newspapers--and democracy--to survive

It seems a weird time to be celebrating or marking anything, but it is a fact on the calendar that next Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of my first newspaper interview.
Essentially, I have been in the news business for 40 years now, and almost always dominated by newspaper work. I briefly tried radio for a few months and certainly I have added work on our digital platforms since I returned to the Eagle, but generally I have been about putting out a newspaper. And I figured out I've spent about 30 of those years in Marion and Walker counties.
When I started, cells phones didn't exist. Desktop computers were just starting for businesses, with green lettering on black background and taking up the desk; it would take a few years for smaller papers to use them, mostly when Apple came along.
Stories were printed in one long column put through a waxer, cut up and literally pasted down on a page. The process would take half the afternoon and most the night in many cases. Cameras still used 35 mm film that you developed in darkrooms. Fax machines were seen as a major advancement.
What we in the business didn't think would become nostalgic is the  question of viability for newspapers. Coming off of the Pentagon Papers and Woodward and Bernstein revealing Watergate, newspapers were at a high mark. The newspaper was a trusted institution, a necessity to democracy, and people longed for their newspaper.
It is still a necessity to democracy, as far as I am concerned. But the trust and desire that was there since the formation of the colonies has eroded. There has been accusations for years from conservatives who charge of left wing bias of major papers and TV networks; Roger Ailes used Fox News to make this an art form with commentators, and radio conservatives kept at it as well. (Note liberals would start to use CNN and MSNBC in the same manner, so that there are no good news channels to get news from.)
For a long time, local and state papers were insulated from this, but eventually state leaders began to use the same talking points as national critics to score points. President Trump and his allies only intensified the attacks. Local leaders have been emboldened to target local papers.
Rising at the same time was the threat of technology. It soon became easy for people to read the news online for free, and people would drop subscriptions. (If you wonder why the Daily Mountain Eagle is taking up the paywall again and you only get a few free stories a month, that is why.)
Then you had social media, like Facebook, to arrive. That allowed the keyboard cowboys to criticize the coverage - and everything and everyone else, too, for that matter - in a way to tear down the news institution. The result is that no one trusts each other in the other party and, having been branded once too often, people don't trust the newspaper as being biased, as if we aim every story to get someone elected.
Soon people also became infatuated with Facebook as the be-all and end-all that it never was, as not everyone sees every post, nor is everyone online, much less on Facebook. But even now, we are faced with government offices, non-profits, businesses and the like who think all they have to do is post an announcement, a photo, a release or whatever on Facebook and that's all we have to do. Sometimes meetings are cancelled or called and we don't even know about it, because they thought Facebook was enough.
The Eagle has done well in addressing and evolving in the digital age - our newspaper awards and audience tell us that. But the real problem is society itself, as it not only bickers with itself but withdraws from community. Students bury themselves into cell phones and don't know how to socialize or communicate with each other. People want to Zoom meetings and watch church at home. Members of Congress don't socialize anymore - sometimes even within a party - and are suspicious of each other.
And people suspect they don't need a newspaper.  And maybe...in some cases, when it benefits the few and powerful...we don't have to tell them at all.  And they turn to the people as populists and say, "Don't trust the papers - trust us! We have your best interest at heart."
I believe newspapers are essential for community and democracy - but not if we let those ideas die. If we become so insulated and contemptible of each other that we do our own thing to the exclusion of other ideas and beliefs, we are done. And we will have to adapt to new technologies to communicate - although I wonder if, like the phonograph record, we get over the shiny newness and go back to the newspaper. And maybe we get over ourselves and learn to work together.
I don't know what I will live to see in newspapers at 50 years, but I know if we question their future, then we better worry about democracy as well. We need an informed, interactive and cooperative democracy.  God help us if that starts to change.
Ed Howell is news editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper and a former journalist in Marion County. He can be reached at ed.howell@mountaineagle.com

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