Opinion

Mourning Newspapers, Journalism, Democracy

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As newspapers continue to struggle financially, Congress has been holding hearings on the future of the industry, looking for ways to revitalize it. Essayist Diane Roberts, who writes often for the St. Petersburg Times, fears we are on the verge of losing an important democratic voice.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

As newspapers continue to struggle financially, Congress has been holding hearings on the future of the industry, looking for ways to revitalize it. Essayist, Diane Roberts, who writes often for the St. Petersburg Times, fears we are on the verge of losing an important democratic voice.

Professor DIANE ROBERTS (Essayist, St. Petersburg Times; Literature and Creative Writing, Florida State University): The first newspaper I ever worked for was called the Flambeau. It was produced by a gaggle of 20-somethings in a grubby newsroom strewn with pizza boxes, miscellaneous athletic gear and copies of the Florida statutes. We were true believers determined to speak truth to power, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein.

We also wanted attention. All journalists want attention. We weren't in it for the money. Newspaper people still aren't in it for the money. They persist in their craft even as newspapers themselves struggle to survive. Ad revenue was flatlining, the once lucrative classifieds had been lost to online listings. Many papers still make a profit, just not enough to satisfy Wall Street.

I believe newspapers can change the world. In the 1770s, Boston and Philadelphia newspapers helped ignite the American Revolution. During the Civil Rights Movement, a vital handful of progressive southern papers such as The Atlanta Constitution and The Anniston Star, risked their very existence advocating for social justice. The New York Times defied the United States government and printed The Pentagon Papers, shinning a bright light on the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Exposing the Watergate conspiracy, The Washington Post showed Americans how their president lied to them and their government betrayed them. These days The Washington Post has been forced to downsize. The Rocky Mountain News has shut down. The Chicago Tribune has filed for bankruptcy. The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper of the great H.L. Mencken, recently laid off 61 people in its newsroom, nearly one third of the staff.

Last month The Atlanta-Journal Constitution lost another 74, among them, my old Flambeau colleague, foreign correspondent Moni Basu. Reporting from Iraq, she wrote about people you'd never hear of otherwise: the Baghdad family struggling to take care of their paralyzed daughter, the young Army chaplain trying to preach forgiveness in the midst of war.

I know the argument. You can get your news from television, radio and god knows - the Internet. The cyber news world offers an embarrassment of riches. But you can't turn pages on a screen. There's a pure tactile pleasure to propping a stack of newsprint on your lap while you drink coffee and read about the wickedness of the world.

That newspaper you hold in your hands, assuming your town still has one, is part of a long tradition. That newspaper has played a central role in protecting American democracy. That newspaper is testimony to the hope, however slim, of making the world a better place.

HANSEN: Diane Roberts is a professor of literature and creative writing at Florida State University.

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