IN 1994, AMERICANS could find out what was going on in their communities by reading one of the 1,534 daily U.S. newspapers. Most of them were published in individual cities and towns where they served subscribers defined by geography, rather than by political persuasion or socio-economic class.
These newspapers were trusted voices. They provided common knowledge and community forums for everyone from bank presidents and doctors to plumbers and teachers.
As of 2018, 255 daily newspapers had stopped publishing, and the survivors have lost large numbers of readers. Instead, millions of Americans now depend on social media, notably Facebook, where forums and groups defined by interests proliferate and where news is reposted from dubious sources. Along the way, we’ve lost a common thread in our public discourse.
I was the editor of one of the 1,534 daily newspapers that existed in 1994. I always aimed to uphold the standards of journalism: accuracy, fairness and balance. They seem like quaint virtues today. So many people seek only to confirm their beliefs and never to be challenged.
Although many of the newspapers were owned by chains and needed to make profits, each had a degree of independence. Most sought to serve their communities as best they could.
Now, a whistleblower has confirmed that Facebook has put profits above all other considerations. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg controls some 58% of the company’s voting stock. It boggles the mind to think that one individual can make final decisions that affect almost three billion monthly active users. One person controlling a massive communications network can’t be a good thing in the long run.
Who knows how much more successful the COVID-19 vaccine campaign would have been if we still had trusted local papers that reported facts and provided guidance? The digital age has brought many benefits. But it’s greatly diminished an institution that had once been an integral part of our communities.