I recall a BellSouth officer's conference years ago where we spent several days wrestling with the problems we were facing in the marketplace. At one point, one of my colleagues said with exasperation, “This is a tough business!” to which our CEO John Clendenin shot back, “Name me one that isn’t!”
I thought about that when I realized that next week is National Newspaper Week. The newspaper business is indeed a tough business these days. According to a study by the University of North Carolina, some 1,800 papers have ceased operations since 2004. That’s roughly one in five of the country’s local papers. Yet, studies show that despite the organizational and financial issues facing the industry, readers still rely on the local newspaper to do what they have always done: Act as a check on those in power, give national developments a local context, keep people informed, and encourage civic involvement. That’s a lot of big words to say that we are here to serve you, dear reader. There are a lot of ways to get your news these days but no better way to get local news than on these pages. City council and county commission meetings, school board doings, road closures, high school sports, obituaries, all is one place. A critical responsibility of the newspaper is to maintain its credibility and your trust in how we cover the news. Although political wingnuts can find a sinister adjective in every declarative sentence, reporters and editors make sure to keep things straight on the news pages and leave the opinions to opinion-grinders like me. William McKenzie, senior editorial advisor at the Bush Institute at SMU, says, “A respected news operation becomes a place to air grievances, discuss problems, learn about neighbors, celebrate big moments and define the identity of a community.” A salient description of the local newspaper.
Advances in digital technology have expanded the ways news can be delivered, and younger generations seem to prefer tap-tap screens to paper. But that is how it gets to the reader, not its content. I am bothered as I suspect most journalists are at the rise of social media. Some of it is good in its instantaneous delivery of information and many local newspapers are taking advantage of that opportunity as a part of their efforts to get news out to you quickly, but much of it is bad – very bad – in putting out erroneous information that gullible people buy into.
I had a doctor once tell me that patients were coming to her office, saying they needed a certain prescription for their particular malady. There was no need for an examination. They already knew what was wrong with them because they “had read it on the Internet.”
Carry that over to the plethora of websites and platforms these days that spout loony conspiracy theories, many originating from foreign sources hoping to sow seeds of discord among those same gullible souls who diagnose their own diseases. Who and what can you believe? I say this very newspaper.
I became been a part of the newspaper profession – and it is a profession – after a career as a vice president of BellSouth Corporation and as a managing director of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. I was asked to write a guest column for a local business publication. That led to one more and one more and 24 years and more than 2,000 columns later, I am still at it.
I have made good friends all over the state that I will likely never meet in person. You applaud me when you agree with my opinions, chide me when you don’t and have consoled me through personal tragedies. I consider you, my customers. I answer every piece of mail I get, whether email or U.S. mail. And I get a lot. I take great pride in being unpredictable. Unlike the Johnny-One-Note columnists who view the world through a myopic liberal or conservative prism, I like to keep folks guessing. Sometimes, I can almost hear the political wingnuts sputter at my offerings. I have been called an “Obama bedwetting liberal” and a “racist redneck” – all in the same week! I do love this job.
In closing, yes, the newspaper business is tough these days, but we are still here and still serving you. As for me, editors willing, if you promise you will keep reading, I promise I will keep writing. We are a team. And a darned good one. Happy National Newspaper Week!
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.