Why Newspapers Shouldn't Go Away
I’ll never forget my first great story. At my initial post-college gig with the Florence (S.C.) Morning News, I randomly stopped into the newsroom on Saturday, April 26, 1996. A call to the county sheriff’s office turned up an arson at a local house of God. The weekend ended.
By the time I got to the more-than-a-century-old Effingham Baptist Church, everything from altar to steeple was destroyed by fire and malignant black smoke. The distraught pastor leaned on his car’s bumper as someone explained that bottles filled with accelerant were thrown inside overnight. By the time a co-worker and I sifted to the bottom of it, we’d tied the blaze, and two more local African-American church arsons, to racist mutts who were showing off for their Klan pals. (Damned if I can find the articles we did, but they're around here somewhere, so I'll find, scan and post them.)
The stories -- and we wrote about a dozen or more of them on the subject -- elicited a pride which validated the decision to move 550 miles south and live a low-paying journalistic dream, but the chance to take bad guys down was compensation enough. All of which is to explain why I feel like a helpless Indiana Jones, waiting for Mola Ram to tear out his heart in the Temple of Doom.
It’s painful, but even I see print journalism as doomed. Blame it on Craigslist filching the classified ads, blogs pretending that snarky takes on others’ articles benefit society (an offense of which I’m sometimes guilty; I mean, you're reading this on my blog, after all), or readers who go online to save 75 cents. Personally, I think newspaper owners didn’t awe anyone with an early response to the shifting society; by cutting jobs, they slashed quality and enabled the world to slip away.
It’s a dangerous predicament, since greed-driven politicians, CEOs and the rest of the world’s shadesters could soon freely run amok with little fear of public humiliation and double-digit prison terms. Look at it this way: Without an Inquirer, Vinnie Fumo would still be adorning himself with platinum hairspray; and without a New York Times, Dubya would be stammering his way through a third term.
Community journalism is a grand idea. So is the idea to convince non-profit foundations to step in and save the journalistic hyde. But when two-newspaper towns disappear like in Seattle, Denver and more to come, the trained, passionate, beat watchdogs will lack the bite they need to make the world a better place. It’s already happening, and we're all the worse for it.
And, who knows, perhaps that’ll enable the Klan firebugs to be free to torch their way from sea to once-shining sea. Because I don't think much has changed from when Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Florence and said,
"The government has categorized them as isolated arson attacks, not as race-hate burnings. But all the churches burned have been black. All those caught have been angry white males, the same kinds that bombed Oklahoma City, the same mentality that's burning these churches."
(The top photo is from free-times.com. After all, when I started in Florence, the online-story option didn't exist.)