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Newspapers for today, newspapers for tomorrow

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” — Maya Angelou

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” — H.G. Wells

Lining the back walls of The Alpena News newsroom and stacked high in the dark storage room we call “the morgue” are dozens of hardbound editions of The News.

Compiled every quarter, the fat books that make great thundering clomps when you drop them on a table are the collected works of dozens of Alpena journalists, wire service writers, and reader-contributors over the course of a near-century, a diary of the history of Northeast Michigan.

You can, for example, open up to a random page in October 1976 to see the plans unveiled for the Thunder Bay Shopping Center while southern Alpena Township residents prepared to connect to the city’s water-sewer system.

In those stories, you can see the promises made and the conditions that existed that allowed the shopping center to thrive and one day house Neiman’s Family Market, and you can wonder if promises were kept or if we could have done more to maintain those conditions, so Neiman’s wouldn’t have been forced to close last month.

And you can read and wonder what sort of different steps might have been taken to prevent today’s ongoing, years-long court battle between Alpena and Alpena Township over water and sewer rates.

Those and literally thousands of other stories are the building blocks of the world we live in today, a blueprint of our modern environment that, if properly studied and applied, might provide a roadmap to help us avoid the pitfalls our forefathers and foremothers faced.

Today caps Newspaper Week in America.

In columns and editorial cartoons throughout the week, readers have been told of how important newspapers are in making the modern world a better place. Carol Hunter, executive editor of the mighty Des Moines Register, for example, highlighted Pulitzer Prize-winning work that sparked real change for the communities served by newspapers, such as the Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News investigation that prompted the state to invest in more police protection for rural areas, and the Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Advocate series that prompted a movement to reform racist criminal justice policy.

That work is important, chief among a newspaper’s duty to its readership.

But there is a second part to that mission that adds just as much weight to the things we do every day: Newspapers are the first chroniclers of history, providing detailed descriptions of our modern world so future historians might one day try to understand how their world was formed.

Newspapers, bound in those hardcover volumes, do that better than anyone else. An internet post will someday fade into obscurity. Whatever medium on which a TV spot is recorded will one day be obsolete. But paper, bound and preserved, will live through the eons.

It works for advertisers, too.

A newspaper ad today not only tells today’s shoppers about the products and services offered in their community, but also permanently preserves that company’s place in the history of that community, making those companies forever part of the zeitgeist.

In 1976, for example, Mobility Sports Center offered snowmobile tune-ups for $14.95 plus parts. A Whirlpool electric range could be had from B&B Sales and Service for $248. And Young’s Appliance advertised the arrival of “a specialist in microwave cooking” for the premier showing of the new Radarange microwave oven from Amana.

Perhaps there are no lessons to be gleaned from those truths, but it adds to the great kaleidoscope of history that helps us understand who we were, which helps us understand who we are.

So, this week, I celebrated newspapers as the fourth estate of democracy, the watchdogs making sure Americans understand when they’re being lied to and when their leaders are falling down on the job.

But I also celebrated newspapers as one of the most important archivists in the world.

I support the continued existence and success of newspapers — and you should, too — because all the blood and sweat and tears of today’s reporters guarantees Americans of the future will know a bit more about the mistakes we made and the things we did right so they might live whatever life they’re living.

To whatever historian, amateur or professional, is reading this decades or centuries from now: You’re welcome.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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