The newspaper business didn’t get off to a good start in America
Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, the first real newspaper in America, was supposed to be a weekly, but it lasted exactly one issue. It was shut down by the colonial government, in part because it published speculation about the king of France having intimate relations with his daughter-in-law. I assume this came from confidential sources.
I share this ancient account because at a time when many are writing the obituary of America’s newspapers, it’s helpful to remember that things have rarely been rosy for those who challenge the powerful, publish the truth and look out for the American people.
Despite a newly adopted First Amendment, President John Adams used the Alien and Sedition Act to target critics of his administration, including newspaper editors. By the end of his term, America had come to its senses, deciding that Freedom of the Press was real.
Those fighting for equality for women and the end of slavery courageously and at considerable risk published newspapers to make the case for change.
Throughout our nation’s history, newspapers have made it their business to hold the powerful accountable. Newspapers haven’t always made a lot of money, but they’ve always made a difference.
It’s important to acknowledge newspapers’ past, but also to express concern about their future.
Digital technology has upended countless industries, including popular music (remember CDs?), travel agencies, and greeting cards.
There’s a new generation with no appetite for newsprint and who have a general sense that news should be free. Although newspapers have moved to build a business around online news – a little slowly for a societal shift that began in 1993 – they were never able to charge ad rates comparable to what they earned in print. That, in turn, has led to a reduction in profits and a corresponding reduction in reporting resources. It’s not a pretty picture.
That said, too many view this as a business story about an industry struggling with change and technology. That’s shortsighted. If newspapers aren’t around – in print or online – tax dollars will be wasted, government corruption will be widespread and our collective quality of life will suffer.
A world without newspapers would mean no one sitting in that press chair at city council meetings, monitoring how taxpayers’ dollars are spent.
It would mean voters without any information upon which to base a vote, relying only on the social media and advertising onslaught of partisans and politicians.
A world without newspapers means we would know virtually nothing about the communities in which we live. With all due respect to news broadcasters, they would be the first to tell you that newspaper content is critical to deciding what to cover.
The biggest loss, though, would be the disappearance of an honest broker, writing about the issues that matter most and giving citizens a real understanding of how their community is faring. I emphasize “honest.”
I’ve written for newspapers as small as the Elmhurst (Ill.) Press and as large as USA Today, but the culture was always the same. Our job was to serve the public, take no prisoners and never play politics. Critics of the press will never believe this, but I’ve spent 25 years in America’s newsrooms and never heard anyone dare suggest that a story take a certain slant to score political gains. That would lead to dismissal.
The truth is that newspapers need our support today more than ever.
The first generation of Americans demanded a free press because they wanted a che
ck on government and protection for the Bill of Rights. That’s a big job, but newspapers have been doing it for the past 228 years.
I believe that most of America’s local dailies and weeklies will continue to serve their communities for years to come, but we can’t take that for granted.
All of us need to think about the high stakes facing a society
without members of a free press maintaining a check on the powerful.
Read. Subscribe. Buy ads. And if you’re not inclined to do any of those things, go ahead and write a check to your local paper anyway.
Think of it as an insurance policy on the kind of country we want —and need — America to be.
Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University and the founder of the 1 for All campaign for the First Amendment. This essay is the second in a series celebrating the Tennessee Press Association’s 150th Anniversary in 2020, taking a look at how newspapers played a role in reporting, supporting or influencing historic events. The first essay, headlined “State plays pivotal role in women’s suffrage,” ran in the Aug. 18 edition of The Daily Herald.