A thank-you to community newspapers

This blog post was adapted from remarks the author made at the midwinter meeting of the Texas Press Association in Frisco in January 2014.

Thank you for missing dinner two nights recently because you were attending a county commission or school board meeting. You were there so you could inform thousands of readers who didn't want to be bothered.

You did. And you do. Week after week. Thank you.

Or maybe you were at a Relay for Life meeting where, in addition to reporting on all those volunteers, you probably also coordinated your own volunteer team. Thank you for contributing to the fabric of your community.

Thank you for making three telephone calls over several hours just to be sure the little girl who won a blue ribbon at the horse show spells "Christie" with a "c" and an "ie" instead of a "k" and two e's — or any other of about 20 variations for how Christie can be spelled.

Accuracy matters. It matters to Christie’s mama and daddy. It matters to all our readers. And it matters to you. Thank you.

Thank you for offering space to friends of a cancer victim washing cars to raise money to buy gas to get that lady to chemotherapy treatments. Your coverage made the difference between raising $1,500 instead of only $150. Thank you.

Thank you for being the greatest link — and the strongest protection — between your readers and those with the power to tax and govern — and the few who abuse that power. Thank you for speaking truth to power. Newspapers are often the only ones to do that.

Thank you for being the first transcribers of the only history your communities may ever record. Words and photos we preserve today are the priceless artifacts of lives treasured for generations to come.

Thank you for providing a low-cost, effective and reliable connection between hundreds of sometimes struggling small businesses and the buying public. You are a vital link between buyer and seller and an invested partner in the success of friends and neighbors. Thank you for working hard to help them succeed.

The late Robert Woodruff, longtime CEO of Coca-Cola, said: "You can have anything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want." This is what great community newspapers do. Thank you for that commitment.

Thank you for being veterans in the war against secrecy and lies and greed. It takes little courage to write about a stranger among thousands or millions in a metropolitan city, but it takes tremendous dignity, daring and fortitude to write about the woman who sits in the next pew with you at church or the man who sits across from you at Rotary. You do it week after week with sensitivity and caring and fairness and accuracy. Thank you for that.

Have newspapers suffered in recent years? Of course! Community newspapers are a direct reflection — a mirror — of the economy of the towns and cities we serve. The economic crash that sent stocks and development plummeting affected every business we serve — and our newspapers reflect that. Communities are hurting and when our towns are injured, newspapers bleed. There is nothing wrong with America’s community newspapers that an overall improvement in our nation’s economy will not fix.

Thank you for not blindly following doomsayers who say newspapers' best days are behind them. But what do they not say?  Television viewership is being splintered into hundreds of channels — with far more of them focused on promoting sex and silliness than vital information that makes our families stronger, our values deeper, our home lives happier.

In Blackshear, Ga., and thousands of small communities just like it across America, community newspapers were “social media” before social media was cool! We’ve been connecting friends and neighbors and telling about who ate with who as far back as when country correspondents wrote about Mr. and Mrs. Jones "motoring" over to the next town last Sunday to have dinner. There's really not much new under the sun but we’ve told people about it all — for decades.

In my little town, if you want a Big Mac, there's only one place to get it: McDonald's. They have the franchise. You want a Whopper? There's only one place to get it: Burger King. They have the franchise. If you're in Blackshear, Ga., and you want local news there's only one place to get it: The Blackshear Times. We have the franchise. It's ours to lose. And we're not giving it up. It’s the same way in your town and thousands of others all over our nation. I know you’re not giving up your franchise as the place to find local news and information, either.

Warren Buffet said: “In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper.” Welcome to our world, Mr. Buffett. It’s reassuring to have you here.

Newspapers are a mirror of our communities, but you cannot see a reflection in the dark. Newspapers have to provide the light. It is hard for a community to rise above the quality and commitment of its local newspaper. Good newspapers build strong communities.

In America we talk about the value and dignity of every individual. Nowhere are those ideals better displayed than in America’s community newspapers. We start at birth! Every child born should have his or her announcement plus a photo in the newspaper. That child’s first and succeeding birthdays are often marked in our newspaper.

We love to publish pictures of children’s first day of school. Through the years we document reading achievement, math competitions, steer shows, athletic victories and countless other milestones of life. Graduation is a big deal in every community. Our documentation of the value of each individual life goes on and on — through engagement, marriage, more births, anniversaries, job promotions.  You name it and we travel life’s path right with the people who surround us, all the way to the grave — and even beyond, with Memorials!

Who cares more about the success, prosperity and happiness of people in your community than you? Nobody!

Are people going to stop loving high school football in Granbury? No!  Are people going to stop caring whether their taxes go up or down in El Dorado? No! Are people going to stop wanting to see children's names on the honor roll in Decatur? No!  Are people going to stop wondering who is going bankrupt or buying building permits in Port Aransas? No!

We believe people will always want to know about their taxes and what their governments are doing.

We believe people will always want to see children’s names and faces publicized for their triumphs and tributes.

We believe there will always be a desire for accountability in government!

We believe in the critical need for accuracy and fairness as demonstrated by professional journalists.

We believe in newspapers!

Thank you for being a part of this great and valuable industry.

By Robert Bohler

Robert Bohler is a veteran of Georgia community journalism. He is the former adviser of the TCU Daily Skiff laboratory newspaper and the quarterly Image Magazine, both nationally award-winning publications.

He has worked in, written about, or taught how to practice journalism since 1981, when he began his career at a weekly newspaper in Georgia. His professional experiences range from that of managing editor at that small weekly newspaper to general assignment and public affairs reporting at medium-sized and metropolitan dailies. Bohler has reported for The Lanier County (Ga.) News, The Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times, The Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald and The Athens Daily News, The Greenville (S.C.) News, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Bohler is a member of the College Media Advisers Hall of Fame.