According to a report from the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, approximately 1,800 newspapers have ceased operations since 2004. Of the nation’s 3,143 counties, more than 2,000 have no daily paper, and 171 have no newspaper at all.
What difference does it make? Online news sources have rendered local papers obsolete, haven’t they?
Not so fast. Multiple studies suggest that when a community loses its newspaper, civic engagement declines, fewer people vote and fewer people run for office. An enduring republic relies upon well-informed citizens; apathy and ignorance will not do.
I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who were avid readers of not only newspapers, but much else. Mom and Dad subscribed to the News & Record, of course, and before that, to the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record. I saw them read the paper every day, and I picked up the habit — a habit I maintain to this day.
Why read a printed newspaper when there are dozens of websites available — including many that feature local news? Many of your friends and neighbors obtain their news exclusively from online sources. But you, the old-fashioned newspaper reader, are probably better informed than those who rely on the internet. How so?
A few years ago, the Newspaper Research Journal conducted a study of New York Times readers. Some participants read the print version of articles, while others read the same content online. The conclusion? Times readers “recalled more stories and specific details in print than they did online.”
As Michael Rosenwald writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The electorate has never been fully informed, but that’s typically by voter choice. Online news, the research says, could make it impossible to be informed, even for those who want to be.” So, if you read the printed newspaper, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Chances are, your reading comprehension is superior to that of your web-viewing neighbor.
Based on several studies, Rosenwald concludes that online readers are erratic — they get distracted by links and ads, and often jump from one story to another. It’s easier to concentrate on the printed page.
On the news front, we suffer not from a lack of sources, but from an embarrassment of riches. There are innumerable websites available, but you and I probably will not encounter the same stories. There is no commonality, no shared experience. It’s difficult to have those “water-cooler” conversations without a common source of news.
Which brings me to another argument of favor of your local paper: community-building or social cohesion. “Community,” a grossly overused term, is defined as “any group living in the same area or having interests, work, etc. in common.” (The use of the word “or” is interesting; why not “and”?) By that definition, Mr. X, who lives in Greensboro but otherwise has nothing in common with his fellow citizens, is nevertheless a member of the community. Well, maybe, but he’s not a fully engaged citizen. It’s safe to assume, for instance, that he doesn’t read the newspaper. Read on.
From the aforementioned Newspaper Research Journal, we learn about a scholar by the name of Masahiro Yamamoto, who has demonstrated that “newspaper reading correlates with respondents’ sense of social cohesion, indicating that community newspapers are important to community engagement.”
Every Sunday morning, my Golden Retriever, Cheyenne, takes great pleasure in racing to the end of the driveway, where she picks up the paper and prances ceremoniously back into the house. It has become a favorite ritual, like reading the daily paper — an obligation that I will not abandon anytime soon. And neither should you.