On Nov. 7, 1837, the Reverend Elijah P. Lovejoy was dragged from his newspaper office of The Observer in Alton, Illinois, and murdered by a mob of anti-abolitionists. His office was torched along with his press and files. Lovejoy became a martyr for the cause of a free press. Nor was he to be the last.
The idea of a free press has been a part of our American heritage since before the writing of the Constitution. Already, newspapers had proven their effectiveness by supporting the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that, if forced to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” So important was the idea of an informed electorate that the U.S. Postal Service Act of 1792 provided postal subsidies for newspapers sent by mail, guaranteeing that citizens in the smallest towns had access to current news.
And yet newspaper publishing in the United States is rife with violent attacks aimed at silencing journalists and publishers and endangering the goal of an informed citizenry.
Ironically, newspapers are their own enemy in maintaining their historical legacy. The paper used to print the news is self-destructive due to the high acidic content used in the production of newsprint. By the middle of the 20th century, libraries faced overflowing storage areas stuffed with rotting newspapers; they turned to convert tons of newsprint to microfilm, thus preserving the content and solving their storage problem. While microfilm became a format despised by some researchers, it rescued a treasure trove of information.
Once again, the federal government, through the resources of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, stepped in to guarantee the survival of our newspaper heritage by funding the United States Newspaper Program (USNP, 1982-2011) which supported the goal of microfilming newspaper backfiles from every state. The USNP was followed in 2003 by the formation of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP, 2003-), the aim of which is to digitize and make freely available searchable news content dating back to 1777. The website Chronicling America (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) is the crowning result of a decades-long effort to preserve the history of a free press in America, in all its glory and bloody history.
The Washington State Library, in partnership with the University of Washington Libraries, Seattle Public Library and other public institutions across the state, has participated in both the USNP and the NDNP. In January 2021, Three Vashon Island newspaper backfiles, 1907-1933, came online in Chronicling America. There will be more files added if the USNP continues to be funded.
Violence continues to be a concern to journalists, and to this danger, we must add a different sort of threat, that of economics. Technology has brought us many forms of what passes for news in social media. Running a small or even medium-sized town newspaper is financially difficult compared to online publication which can be achieved by sitting in mother’s basement with a laptop and spewing out all manner of drivel.
Competing with the cacophony of free online sources is extremely expensive compared to running a brick-and-mortar presence in one’s community, publishing both print and online copy, and striving for journalistic excellence. Yet the value of on-the-ground reporting by journalists who know their constituency and participate directly in the life of their community is obvious. They feel an obligation to their neighbors to be accurate and fair. The average reader of a town or city newspaper can learn about the events of the day and forces at work which roil a community. Letters to the editor, commentaries and editorials, contributed by members of the local community, give an opportunity for individual expression, opposing views, and sometimes a bit of ranting. The local newspaper brings a community together, even when in turmoil.
The danger of losing this sense of community is real. Newspaper people are well aware of this threat, and most disturbingly, see at least one problem as internal.
Frank Blethen, the publisher of the independently owned Seattle Times, leads a national coalition to reform newspaper ownership which over the last four decades has been undermined by “a handful of non-democratic fiscal oligarchies (hedge funds and distressed asset-players) who control most of the country’s newspapers,” which has led to consolidation and a loss of local control, putting “our democracy in peril.”
Blethen calls this movement “Save the Free Press Initiative” and his hope is to reform newspaper ownership, hire more journalists to write more real news stories emphasizing state and local government. He refers to our founding fathers who knew the importance of the federal role by subsidization and universal access to news, this last being actually possible now through judicious use of the internet.
At the same time, we must not lose sight of the violence inherent in reporting the truth. On January 5, 2021, the International Federation of Journalists reported that at least 2,658 journalists and media workers were killed over the last three decades while performing their professional duties. More shocking is that 75% of these victims were not in war zones; they were local beat reporters going about their work in cities and towns around the world.
Glenda Pearson retired from the University of Washington Libraries, Librarian emerita, where she was Head of Government Publications, Maps, Microforms and Newspapers. She has been involved in Vashon nonprofits for 25 years.