Newspapers Renewable Energy For Democracy

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher
Swift County Monitor-News

Print is dead. We’ve heard it too often.

We’ve heard dinosaurs mentioned in the same sentence as print. Buggy whips, too. Print is obsolete having outlived its usefulness in the face of the digital revolution, it is said. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram – are now the primary source of “news” for many youth. A fair number of older adults also turn to the internet for their “news.”

A friend of ours recently asked a group of young people if they read the local newspaper. The looks on the faces communicated a single message: “You are kidding, aren’t you?” Facebook. That’s where their news came from.

Obviously, we don’t believe print is dead. Nor do we believe that a person can get the news needed to be an informed citizen through social media. What passes as news today is entertainment, gossip, rumor, and the latest crime news. Give a person who doesn’t read the local newspaper a quiz on the most important news stories in their community and they will fail miserably – but they don’t care.

Not all old technology is buried by innovation. In its simplicity the windmill remains relevant through refinement. At its core, it is the same but with enhanced productivity. Drive around the country and you will see giant windmill blades sweeping slowly in circles pushed by the wind creating clean energy that feeds into the nation’s electric grid.

Standing windmills have been used for more than 800 years. They are an ancient technology that provided water for human consumption, for livestock and for crops. They were used to grind grain into flour. It was in 1888 that the windmill was first used to generate electricity.

As the nation turned to coal, hydroelectric dams and nuclear energy, with a nationwide grid connecting their power to homes and businesses, windmills disappeared from the landscape. Why the resurgence of this ancient technology? Because its simple design has been improved to provide cheap, clean energy at a scale that allows it to replace more expensive and polluting sources of power.

We like to think of print newspapers as windmills. Print is still relevant.

Print book sales continue to rise going up every year since 2013 while sales of digital books have flattened out. Even with significant price breaks on the digital books, people still want the print edition.

Studies have shown that while students prefer to get their textbooks digitally, they do better when their books are in print. Multiple studies have shown reading print increases a person’s retention and understanding of what they have read while digital reading leads to shallow comprehension.

Then there are all those catalogues you get in the mail.

There is a reason L.L. Bean sends a catalogue in the mail regularly. It knows that if it stops sending magazines and relies on emails or its website to try to get you to shop with them, you’ll soon forget they are still around. Competitors like Eddie Bauer will then dominate the market.

They know they must constantly keep their brand fresh in your memory. They know you will page through their magazine and maybe see something you like, then go to their website to buy it. They know that constant reminder of the magazine sitting on your coffee table will prompt you to go to their website when you are sitting with your computer in your lap.

While the wind is free, the technology to turn it into renewable energy is not. Windmills cost money. They must be repaired when their generators or gears wear out. The powerlines that bring electricity to homes and businesses must be serviced.

Essential to our continuing to provide information fundamental to sustain citizen knowledge essential to an informed electorate, is revenue provided by advertising and subscriptions. They are the wind, the water, and the sun, that sustains us.

Now Google, Facebook and other internet sites hoard and block our sources of energy. They are a blight on democracy  eroding our sources of news. Rather than creating a sense of community, they isolate and divide us.

The coronavirus’ impact on newspapers has been devastating to newspapers in America at a time when they were already seriously wounded. As businesses have had to shut down, or dramatically cut back on expenses during the pandemic, they have eliminated or reduced their print advertising.

What has been happening underscores the imperative to separate newspapers from reliance on subscribers and advertising. Newspapers are a public good and must be financed with the help of citizens.

We are not self-sustaining in today’s digital world though we remain the most important source of news gathering and reporting in America. In many of our communities, we are the only source of local news.

Like newspapers, democracy is not self-sustaining.

“We also may have become too complacent, too sure of democracy’s robustness or of its long-term viability,” Margaret S. Branson and Charles N. Quigley wrote in a piece for the Center for Civic Education. “History, however, teaches us that few countries have sustained democratic governments for prolonged periods, a lesson which we as Americans are sometimes inclined to forget,”

They go on to paraphrase the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French student of American democracy in the 1830s. “Each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy,” they write. “Democracy is not a ‘machine that would go of itself,’ but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another.”

We are clean energy for democracy – we don’t pollute citizen knowledge with false information. We don’t print vitriolic rants filled with bitterness that polarizes friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. We inform, educate, entertain and hold power accountable.
What happens to democracy without us?

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