Newspapers still democracy’s backbone

It’s everywhere. Fake news, as it has been dubbed, though that’s actually a simplified version of what’s going on. It’s not all fake; sometimes it’s merely sensationalized, exaggerated for effect, or so subtle in its manipulations that it looks real to the naked eye.

These are signs of the times. News is now an illusive commodity, something that can be manipulated by its distributor, or by its creators, like unscrupulous news organizations seeking better ratings or conniving politicians who depend on spin to keep their constituencies placated or riled up.

The internet seems to have more memes than original facts, while television is more about visuals than substance. News talk shows treat the issues facing our nation like sporting events, with change-makers playing offense and protectors of the status quo playing defense.

Meanwhile, we media consumers, who are far from innocent bystanders in this parade of noise and hyperbole, retire to our echo chambers where like-minded thinkers play with our opinions like putty in their hands.

There is, however, one basic exception to the modern-day barrage of “news” inundating our lives minute by minute, and it’s been sitting in front of us for years. Newspapers are still reporting real news.

Newspapers may look like antiquated products but they’re not. Sure, fewer people actually sit down at their kitchen table and read through their hardcopy hometown paper over a cup of coffee, but when you count the online presence of most newspapers, their readership is actually up.

Take one of President Trump’s favorite punching bags, the “failing” New York Times, as an example. It sells about a million hardcopy Sunday editions each week, and while it’s true that number is declining, it’s being offset by an even larger increase in its digital readership—about 2.3 million online readers nowadays. In part, that’s owed to Trump himself, as people seek out credible news to offset the president’s own hyperbole and lies.

Think about it: What are the most credible news outlets out there? Maybe a third of the nation has been fooled into thinking the Fox News or big mouthpieces like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh are the only reliable sources out there, but they’re in a growing minority. Most Americans are far more likely to trust the reporting of newspapers.

Newspapers do the most reliable in-depth and investigative work. Sure, television news magazines like “60 Minutes” do some good digging from time to time, as do some hardcopy magazines like Time and online-only news outlets like ProPublica, but mostly it’s newspapers and their online outlets that dig into the most important issues facing our communities. And when they do, they get picked up and shared all over the place.

And on the hyperlocal front, newspapers rule. Nobody covers the nitty-gritty realities of Española like the Rio Grande Sun, or the daily crime-and-punishment beat of Roswell like the Daily Record, or the Navajo Nation like the Navajo Times, or Silver City’s unique cultural environment like the Daily Press. Nobody. Nowhere.

Local newspapers have a special place in every small town they’re a part of. I particularly like what M.E. Sprengelmeyer, the soon-to-be former reporter-publisher of The Communicator in Santa Rosa, wrote recently about today’s media climate:

“Choices are a good thing, but it does lead to self-segregation in the virtual world, with liberals hanging out with liberals, conservatives hanging out with conservatives, sports fans hanging out with sports fans, cat fetishists hanging out with cat fetishists. And even if people are next-door neighbors in the real world, they don’t necessarily speak the same language when they start talking about the state of the world.

“Stodgy as some of them are, local newspapers connect one neighbor to another, giving folks a common set of information, ideas, images, opinions and terminology to begin their conversations and debates. Next-door neighbors still can—and definitely do—disagree over what it all means, whether this column or that column was full of aforementioned bunk. But at least they’re starting in the same place, speaking the same language about that thing they saw when their fingers were getting stained by the ink on page B2.”

Sprengelmeyer, by the way, is selling his highly successful newspaper to yours truly. I take over The Communicator in December—and I’ll be writing about that soon enough.

For now, suffice it to say that my bias is showing—for real news, fact- and reason-based opinions, and transparency in the public’s interest. And while I’ll soon have my own newspaper in which to show such colors, all of that can already be found—in newspapers.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and writes this column for newspapers around the state. He can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.