Some of society’s most familiar institutions live on the boundary between being profitable businesses and wards of the community. Think arts organizations and minor league sports franchises. The strongest do well. The rest is subsidized by local leaders’ correct assessment that having a hockey team or a symphony makes any town a richer and more attractive place to live. A daily newspaper is a bit the same thing. Local businesses and city leaders will do just about anything to keep their newspaper afloat. But there are times and places where no local goodwill is running the presses. From 2005 to 2021, America lost 2,200 newspapers.

The death spiral often followed predictable stages. Interest has sagged because the hectic lifestyles of many Americans don’t include daily leisure for a morning or afternoon newspaper. Television, radio, and the Internet report and analyze the day’s events almost instantaneously, making some newspaper articles obsolete before they reach your front porch. Then, fewer copies are sold, resulting in less ad revenue, which leads to fewer staff, who produce even less interesting original content and generate even less sales and publicity.

On the way to their final resting place, newspapers have a knack for shrinking into two dimensions. They are decreasing in the actual number of physical pages, but they are also decreasing in the percentage of locally generated and locally relevant content. They can sleepwalk from edition to edition filled with various predictable boilerplate forms such as puzzles, cartoons, church bulletins, school lunch menus, and market reports, all of which can be obtained more complete and faster from online sources. The epitome of this problem is major league scoring. No sports fan has waited half a day to find their beloved team’s last performance in their local newspaper for half a century. Yet the dead ritual of imprinting what everyone already knows continues.

The moribund editorial calendars parade through the year without leaving a mark. It starts on New Year’s Day with the unchanging images of the first babies of the year at every local hospital. It ends twelve months later with pictures from a nearby small town’s Christmas pageant. The weeks in between offer a series of infinitely predictable elements that pass the reader’s view like lights on the shore of a sluggishly slow Mississippi paddlewheel touring boat. Is it any wonder that this product is hard to sell in 2022? Are local American newspapers simply running out of ideas?

And yet, some aspects of print newspapers are unlike any other medium. A diary invites you to take the time to live in the moment. Unlike a webpage, it doesn’t flash a dozen links every second urging you to divide your attention and then move elsewhere. It limits your reading speed, and prompts you to go back and revisit a paragraph you misunderstood or liked the first time around. The very consistency of its format helps reinforce the necessary illusion that we live in a reasonably predictable and manageable world. It has the (often unrealized) potential to serve the community of today and help shape what that community might become. It can also form an important part of a place’s historical record to help those who come later to understand our successes and failures.

In the 19th century, New York City supported 54 newspapers. Many places today only have one. Thus, for a modern community newspaper to thrive, it must honor its obligation to have a balanced range of viewpoints that speaks to all citizens. When a newspaper begins to function simply as the internal organ of a single doctrine or a single political party, its days as a living thing are numbered. A newspaper that wishes to remain healthy cannot long afford to reject half of its potential readership in a society that seems polarized on just about every topic. They will refuse to give even half a dollar to views which they consider to be wrong, perhaps even morally repugnant, and which are not counterbalanced by the slightest suspicion on the other side of the story.

There is nothing wrong with an article having a point of view. All major newspapers have their own consistent way of seeing the world, and readers of The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Guardian expect to see that perspective, although hopefully less in the stories than in the pages. of opinion. But leading newspapers also struggle to consistently feature voices that oppose their own editorial bias. A newspaper that does not present content that annoys the majority of its readership is not doing its job. It simply functions as an echo chamber where a single faction can bask in the comfort of believing they were absolutely right about everything all along.

We sharpen our arguments on the whetstone of opposing arguments. Without this refinement, our thinking degenerates into slogans and soundbites that can never be the basis of the common ground needed to actually do something. This is why a sincere and lively debate is what a local newspaper worthy of the name should be, provided that this debate is modulated by tact and mutual respect. We need the printed equivalent of a conference table, not several soapboxes facing in opposite directions.

Dr. Richard Rose is director of the instructional design and technology program at West Texas A&M University. The comments here represent his own opinions and not those of WTAMU.