Thankful that American newspapers endure

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson

This fall marks the 330th anniversary of the printing of the first colonial newspaper in America, the one-issue Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick that was immediately stifled by the British government (read a great history by Poynter here: https://tinyurl.com/yyttrjey).

This summer will mark the 245th anniversary of the July 6, 1776 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, which carried the first newspaper printing of the full Declaration of Independence (https://tinyurl.com/y388yqwa) (a German-language paper tailored to Pennsylvania’s immigrants was the first to report on the document — https://tinyurl.com/y6go6bl4).

Newspapers played such a critical role in the founding of this nation that historian David Ramsay declared, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” (Read a great study on newspapers and the American Revolution here: https://tinyurl.com/y6e6o6r5).

This great democratic experiment has had a complicated relationship with its most important ingredient, the free press.

Shortly after founding a nation guaranteeing the right of newspapers to publish as they saw fit, some of our Founders tried to abolish that right, passing the Sedition Act that allowed criminal punishment for those who criticized the government.

Thomas Jefferson rose to the presidency fighting the Sedition Act and dismantled the law once in office, writing those words championed by journalists everywhere, that a country with newspapers but no government is better than the other way around.

But, once he became president and the target of criticism by the openly partisan newspapers of the day, Jefferson, too, scorned the media (and its readers). He told a friend that newspapers should be run “‘by restraining it to true facts and sound principles only.’

“Yet I fear,” Jefferson wrote, “such a paper would find few subscribers.”

Jefferson even instructed attorneys general to prosecute publishers for sedition, the very laws he’d fought against in his campaign (the Washington Post has a good history of Jefferson and newspapers here: https://tinyurl.com/jx3uxjg).

Yet newspapers endure.

Through repeated attacks by the most powerful men in the world, newspapers endured.

Through the Great Depression and Great Recession, newspapers endured.

Through the advent of the telegraph, then the telephone, breaking newspapers’ hold on the speedy mass dissemination of information, then the advent of the radio, then television, then the internet, splintering the advertising market that held newspapers’ budgets together, newspapers endured.

And newspapers will endure, still.

I don’t mean only ink printed on broadsheet paper, though there are benefits to that, including the most enduring preservation of local history.

No matter the medium, newspapers give readers longer, more thoughtful, balanced, nuanced, detailed, and informative reporting than 30-second or even two-minute spots on TV or radio can provide, and that’s why even radio and TV stations now emulate newspapers’ formats in writings on their websites.

Newspapers, after all, invented the investigatory journalist.

That will endure, even if it moves online.

And, for that, I am thankful. Every Thanksgiving. All year long. Every year.

I am thankful because newspapers give readers the information they need to make informed decisions. I am thankful because newspapers point out the wrongs of the people we trust to do the right thing. I am thankful because newspapers give us the information we need to participate in our democracy or to stay safe during a pandemic or to support our communities through charity or simply showing up to an event.

I am especially thankful for community newspapers, like The News, which offer every reader a chance to share his or her opinions with the community (even if that opinion is critical of the newspaper). Which give every resident a chance to tell his or her story and to be forever memorialized in an obituary. And which dedicate entire pages to celebrations big and small, from anniversaries and weddings to graduations and dean’s list honors.

And that will endure.

Papers’ relationship with this nation and its readers will forever be complicated, because the truth is complicated — and sometimes painful.

Individual newspapers may come and go, but newspapers as an industry, as a democratic institution, as the most important ingredient in this grand experiment called America, will be around to celebrate many, many more Thanksgivings with you.

And, for that, I am thankful.


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