Three years ago, some 20 Peoria-area journalists and activists came together to buy the Community Word to ensure its future as an independent, locally owned newspaper. Initially launched in 1977, the free monthly now reaches about 19,000 readers both in print and online. The print edition is distributed to more than 200 sites throughout the area including libraries, the airport, restaurants and coffee shops.
It’s an experiment, in some ways, one “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as it’s said, and one we still hope touches 21st century readers.
Ten years ago, the still-20th century newspaper industry worried about the Internet and started aspiring toward content that couldn’t be exactly copied by the World Wide Web.
“Editors and news directors today fret about the Internet, as their predecessors worried about radio and TV, and all now see the huge threat the Web represents to the way they distribute their product,” said Mitchell Stephens in Columbia Journalism Review in the winter of 2007. “In a day when information pours out of digital spigots, stories that package painstakingly gathered facts on current events – what happened, who said what, when – have lost much of their value. News now not only arrives astoundingly fast from an astounding number of directions, it arrives free of charge. Selling what is elsewhere available free is difficult, even if it isn’t 19 hours stale. Just ask an encyclopedia salesman, if you can find one.
“The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis,” he added, “thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events – insights, not just information. What is required – if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news – is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word: wisdom.”
Historically and today, newspapers, ideally, are a public trust – even if they operate as private enterprises. At their best, they offer ways for people to look at themselves and their community and world, to give voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful accountable, to cover city, state and national political or business campaigns, sports and the arts, keeping everyday people in touch with their civic and cultural lives.
Former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the Central Illinoisan who was the Democratic nominee for U.S. President twice in the 1950s and U.N. Ambassador in the ’60s, said, “The sources of information are the springs from which democracy drinks. A free society means a society based on free competition, and there is no more important competition than competition in ideas, competition in opinion.
“Our press may make a million mistakes without doing itself permanent harm so long as its proprietors are steadfast in their adherence to truth,” he added.
For a more modern perspective, progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his current book “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In,” writes, “When there is round-the-clock coverage of the Super Bowl, we are being informed that football and the NFL deserve our rapt attention. When there is very little coverage of the suffering of the 43 million Americans living in poverty, or the thousands of Americans without health insurance who die each year because they can’t get to a doctor when they should, corporately owned media is telling us that these are not issues of major concern.
“Media is not just about what is covered and how,” he adds, “It is about what is not covered. Issues being pushed by the top 1 percent get a lot of attention. Issues advocated by representatives of working families, not so much. Seen any specials lately as to why we pay the highest prices in the world for our prescription drugs, or why we are the only major country on Earth not to have a national health care program?”
Another progressive Illinois official, the late, great U.S. Sen. (and former newspaperman) Paul Simon, in his book “Our Culture of Pandering,” published shortly before his 2003 death, wrote, “What is important is always a subjective judgment. The proclamation of the Declaration of Independence made page 2 of the Hartford Courant. But consistent media inattention to basic problems in our society is inexcusable. It breeds discontent and indifference.”
Author and historian Sam Tanenhaus (“The Death of Conservatism”) wrote this spring in The Atlantic, “Implying that actual news is synonymous with truth is bound to be erroneous: In reality, journalism is the first, not final, draft of history – provisional, revisable, susceptible to mistakes and at times falsehoods, despite the efforts of even the most scrupulous reporters.”
Most journalists diligently try to be complete, fair and accurate, but it’s difficult-to-impossible to be absolutely objective. In fact, personal hero Heywood Broun – the New York columnist who founded the News Guild labor union for journalists in 1933 – once wrote, “It has been said that the perfect reporter ought to be patterned more or less along the physical and chemical lines of a plate-glass window … in the hope that he will find the truth.
“I am not altogether certain these requirements are wise,” he continued. “I am not glass, either clear or opaque. When hit, the result is something other than ‘Tinkle! Tinkle!’ ”
So the Community Word marks its third “re-birthday” with a hope to serve the community with news analysis by local writers, writers that hopefully reflect what Stephens argued 10 years ago should frame contemporary newspapers.
Journalists, Stephens wrote in 2007, must show the “five I’s”: being informed, intelligent, interesting, industrious, and insightful.