October 11, 2007

One of the great autobiographies of the last 2,000 years is “The Confessions of St. Augustine.”  It’s a work that must be taken seriously because its author offers such a full and candid description of his own human weaknesses. One chapter begins: “I wish to bring back to mind my past foulness and the carnal corruptions of my soul.”  It is in that spirit that I confess that I don’t spend as much time as I used to reading the newspaper — any newspaper.

I’m making a promise to myself, and now to you, to reverse this trend. The future of journalism, not just newspapers, depends upon such loyalty. And now I pose this challenge to you: It is your duty as a journalist and a citizen to read the newspaper — emphasis on paper, not pixels.

I can’t tell you when my behavior toward the paper changed. No crash of lightning knocked me off my horse on the way to Damascus. (Jeesh!  First Augustine, and now Paul?). Day by day, week by week, I began to realize that I wasn’t reading news. I was breathing it. Absorbing it. More and more, my life was becoming a mediated reality — with an emphasis on the media.
The first thing I touched in the morning and the last thing I touched at night was the TV remote. In the morning, it was the “Today” show and some local news and weather. Late at night it was MSNBC or ESPN or “The Daily Show” or Jay Leno. During the day, I checked my favorite Web sites and blogs, or scanned the cable news networks, or listened to NPR or sports radio, or caught a bit of network news. Mix all of this with talk television and radio, with celebrity and entertainment programing, and you have a matrix that shapes almost every experience of every day. Oh, I forgot e-mail on my home and office computers, and now my BlackBerry. Add word of mouth, news that was passed along.

So where is there room, where is the time, for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal? My slow ooching away from the newspaper has nothing to do with the quality of these publications. Their reporting, writing, editing and visual presentation are better than ever. I owe it to hard-working journalists everywhere — and to the future of journalism — to read them.  It’s no longer a choice. It’s a duty.

And here’s why: There is one overriding question about the future of journalism that no one can yet answer: How will we pay for it? Who will pay for good reporters and editors? Who will pay to station them in statehouses, or send them to cover wars and disasters? Who will finance important investigations in support of the public’s health and safety?

Until we create some new business models in support of the journalism profession, we’ve got to support what we have, even as we create and perfect online versions that may one day attract the advertising dollars and other revenues we need to do what we do well.

I’ve been reading the paper more closely lately, spending at least 15 minutes in the morning, and then picking up some longer stories and features in the evening. The experience has reminded me of something I forgot along the way: that there is no substitute for the local daily newspaper if I am going to live as a full-blooded citizen in a place that I love.

I have no proof, but a strong feeling, that even journalists, especially young ones working at newspapers, don’t read the paper. That feels wrong to me — and self-defeating.

So join me, even you young whipper-snappers. Read the paper. Hold it in your hand. Take it to the john. Just read it.

[Do you read the newspaper? If so, why? If not, why not?]

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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