David Cox | Help the sun shine in

Two questions:
1. Where did you get your most recent information on the last City Council or County Supervisors’ meeting you heard about?
a. TV
b. Internet
c. Rumor
d. Newspaper

 

2. What does the Lex/BV/Rockbridge area have that Denver and (soon) Seattle don’t have?
a. Ski slopes
b. Big harbor
c. Buildings over ten stories high
d. Two newspapers plus one monthly journal.

If you answered “d” on #1, you demonstrate how important print journalism is for understanding our government and, thus, our democracy. If you answered “d” on #2, you indicate (a) how fortunate we are in our area, (b) how threatened are newspapers in our nation, and, thus (c) how threatened are we as a people when the main resource of newsgathering becomes an endangered species.

Yes, I’m biased. I’m a newspaper junkie, sometimes poring over two or even three dailies. Clearly, I write for a weekly. My wife works in the journalism department at W&L. I edited my high school paper and worked on the college daily. Some of my best friends are (God help ’em) journalists. I admit I take a distorted view of the fourth estate.

Still, I believe, with Mr. Jefferson, that they are essential to our democracy. True, once he opined, “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.” Yet he also pushed the First Amendment that, among other things, guaranteed the freedom of the press. “Where the press is free and every man able to read,” he declared, “all is safe.”

Why? Because, first, journalists report news. That exert themselves in finding out what’s going on in life. Then, they publish it. They share their findings with the rest of us.

Since so much of where they look and what they find out concerns government, they provide the utterly essential task of informing us, who are ultimately the ones who by our ballots choose who govern, with what is going on in the government that we choose and pay for.

And in my admittedly slanted view, print journalism, especially newspapers, are crucial to the endeavor.

Yes, other sorts of journalism have sprung up, and some are growing in strength and influence: Herewith a shout-out to websites like the Augusta Free Press (which also carries this column) and W&L’s award-winning “Rockbridge Report.” But who covers our local city councils and board of supervisors all year long? Reporters from the News-Gazette, Rockbridge Advocate, and of course the Rockbridge Weekly. Further, because these reporters often cover more than one board, they have a perspective that even elected officials cannot have. Their job is time-consuming and often tedious; but as a result, readers glean what’s going on in our community.

But therein lies the problem. With all these new forms of communication, readers are becoming fewer and advertising lower, even as production costs increase. Denver just lost its major daily. Portland, Maine just dodged losing its, which is also the state’s largest.

Because the species is in danger, then, so too is our ability to know what is going on. If you answered “d” to Question 1, imagine where you would get your information if “d” was not an option. As you imagine this, recall the number of times that you’ve seen stories that these alternative media picked up from information in good-old-fashioned printed reports.

To that extent, then, democracy itself is in danger. If Thomas Jefferson had to choose between a free press and a strong government, he said he’d choose the first, for the press not only keeps the people informed, it keeps the government honest and open.

Last week was “Sunshine Week” in Virginia, highlighting those sources that shed light on our governmental operations. Of these, the free press in all its forms is the most important; and of those, print journalism is the most central. Be glad for them. Treasure them. Even more, subscribe to and read them, for the sake of the nation.

 

Column by David Cox

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