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Newspapers face a tough future

Posted on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 3:59 pm

By John Gullion

When times are tough, so are we.
The U.S. has won the wonder of the world through its perseverance. For much of its history, the American spirit has lit the world as a champion for freedom, enlightenment and tenacity. Through those decades, American newspapers have done the same. Keeping Americans informed through world wars, a Great Depression, tragedies, triumphs and, now, multiple global pandemics.
Much has changed in the last century in terms of how newspapers perform their sacred duty, a Constitutionally-protected task envisioned by the founding fathers as essential to the success of the American democracy. Newspapers have been blessed to chronicle the wonders of American successes, champion the impoverished, inform the American people and challenge the status quo. Newspapers have told truth to power, exposed wrongdoing and reveled in celebrating the thankless and served as a crucial pillar of America’s success.
Like the country they serve, America’s newspapers have never been perfect and will never be perfect, but each day a fresh roll of paper is loaded into America’s presses and we go about the work of keeping this nation informed. Now, like America itself, newspapers are faced with another challenge, one that puts the very lifeblood of the industry in danger.
As the coronavirus struck, many of the businesses that advertise with us shut down while others have been affected to the point they are barely able to keep their doors open.
The financial machine that powered America’s newspapers has ground to a halt and as a consequence, many newspapers find themselves fighting to pay the people necessary to keep the flow of information alive.
Even as the powerful river of commerce that has funded America’s newspapers has been reduced to a trickling stream, the evidence that newspapers continue to serve a vital function has never been greater.
People are restlessly waiting in their locked-down homes for us to bring the news.  Newspapers across the country are setting records for traffic as the populace demands the information newspapers provide.
Across the country, journalists and the thousands of people it takes to let them do their work from publishers to ad salespeople to printers are figuring out ways to keep the news coming.
We do our work as bravely as we can, even when we, too, are masked up and dodging possibly lethal infections.
A disheartening chord is sounding here and there across America’s mournful song about this tragic era: why should Americans still support newspapers?
Some in our business don’t like the very notion of “media.” We newspaper folk argue that we are not the “media.” We are the “press,” the ones mentioned in the Constitution. Even so, we know some people don’t trust newspapers either, though we work and play and worship and vote in our own communities. Distrust and dissension are making this tough era even tougher.
Let us speak our piece here.
We cover events and issues and write the news as best we can in the worst of times. We do have to have revenue to pay people, just as the even braver front-line hospitals, ambulance companies and urgent care centers do. We are large and small, owned by local owners or sometimes people from far away. But in most small communities, the newspaper is a hometown thing. Simply put: We’re here to cover the news. For many of us, we believe it is our life’s calling to do so.
Through our national organizations, we’re asking Congress to show support. We need those federal advertising messages to go into the local paper, not onto Facebook or Instagram. We need the short-term payroll loans—instead of going to multi-million dollar international chains—so we can pay our staff and cover printing costs for a while.
If these are bailouts or handouts, they are no more so for us than for the millions of other businesses covered by Congress’s $2 trillion stimulus bill. Yes, we are worried about federal debt. But if the economy collapses, the debt will surely spiral out of control.
We need to get through this time and tighten our belts, just as we have through two world wars, terrorist attacks and other epidemics.
Are we worth the investment? You tell us. Without journalism, how does this bold 244-year experiment in self-government continue to work? We aren’t perfect, nor is democracy. But it is the best we have and the best the world has ever seen.

John Gullion, the managing editor of the Citizen Tribune, in Morristown, Tenn. The Citizen Tribune is the flagship newspaper of Lakeway Publishers, the Vandalia Leader.