The way newspapers give meaning to our communities

Paper rolls wait to be loaded onto a dolly for the trip to The News & Observer’s press in downtown Raleigh.
Paper rolls wait to be loaded onto a dolly for the trip to The News & Observer’s press in downtown Raleigh. Courtesy of Dwane Powell

Late last month, The News & Observer quietly announced a plan to explore selling off the paper’s downtown headquarters. The printing presses that have been rolling in the heart of Raleigh since 1956 could soon go quiet, with production moved to a plant in Garner and reporters relocated from the Old Reliable’s home on Nash Square.

The move has a blunt economic logic. Downtown real estate is gaining value, and newspapers are not.

The Charlotte Observer – also owned by McClatchy, the N&O’s corporate parent – is in similar straits, exploring a sale of its uptown Charlotte headquarters to make way for more profitable enterprises.

That the N&O should struggle in a thriving region like the Triangle highlights just how troubled the traditional news business has become. The paper is only moving, not closing. But the declining fortunes of local journalism threaten the integrity of our politics and the character of our community.

I don’t ascribe any special virtue to newspapers. The Fourth Estate employs the same flawed humans who burden our government agencies, private enterprises and personal lives, so there’s no reason to expect saintliness. But it has proven useful in our long democratic experiment to have journalists around, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Just in the past year, The N&O has annoyed the governor, the North Carolina Democratic Party, the state’s largest utility company, unscrupulous contractors, Robeson County prosecutors, the nation’s oldest public university, several private colleges in the Raleigh area and just about everyone with an interest in the Wake County Public School System.

And rightly so. A free press with the strength to curb concentrated power is still a vital part of our civic culture. Newspapers are, in many cases, the only institutions with the heft to balance other influential interests.

It has been painful to watch that heft diminish. Newspaper circulation has declined for the better part of a decade, forcing layoffs of experienced journalists. I’m often done with today’s anorexic edition before the coffee gets cold.

Of course, there’s now plenty else to read, including more on The N&O’s website. We have mobile apps and social media feeds and a slew of other digital miracles that spoil us for choice. But even as we’ve gained access to news and information from all over the world, we’re losing a vital link to our own communities.

It’s wonderful that I can read stories about higher education from across the country, while my neighbor takes a keen interest in political news from Washington. But the decline of newsprint means he and I are less likely to both read about county tax decisions, our state lawmakers or school board debates. We are less likely to feel connected to the places where we live and work.

New technology brought us the fantasy of becoming digital citizens of the world, roaming far and wide via tiny glass screens, keeping in touch with people and stories no matter where they are. But our lives and our political institutions remain stubbornly rooted in geography.

For centuries, newspapers have helped give meaning to that geography. They establish a common vernacular, define a set of reference points and serve as referee for our cultural and political debates. They are placemakers, helping to forge an actual community.

That role is especially important in a place like the Triangle, where a growing and changing population means fewer longstanding connections. Only 46 percent of Raleigh residents were born in North Carolina, according to an analysis by Governing Magazine. The 54 percent who hail from elsewhere won’t learn the ins and outs of the Tar Heel State on Facebook.

To avoid becoming a homogenized Everytown, we need to support the institutions that define our civic and cultural life. There already seems to be growing interest in local offerings – art, beer, music, food, etc. We should work to cultivate a healthy interest in local news, too.

Whether that means more ink on paper or more locally sourced pixels on our screens, it has to start with a willingness to invest in good reporting in our own backyards. Commentary and click-bait are cheap; investigation and fact-checking are not.

If free digital outlets can eventually offer the kind of depth and clout that newspapers have long wielded, I’ll be the first to celebrate. For now, I’m going to keep offering my monthly tithe to The N&O and hope it can find another downtown spot to call home.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He sits on The News & Observer’s Reader Panel, works for UNC and speaks for no one but himself.