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free press

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Below is an editorial written by Judy Patrick, the New York Press Association’s vice president for editorial development.

We’ve been complacent.

We thought everybody knew how important a free press was to our world and that all this talk about us being the enemy of the people would be dismissed for the silliness that it is.

But the reckless attacks have continued, instigated and encouraged by our president.

When the leader of the free world works to erode the public’s trust in the media, the potential for damage is enormous, both here and abroad. We once set an example of free and open government for the world to follow. Now those who seek to suppress the free flow of information are doing so with impunity.

The time has come for us to stand up to the bullying. The role journalism plays in our free society is too crucial to allow this degradation to continue.

We aren’t the enemy of the people. We are the people. We aren’t fake news. We are your news and we struggle night and day to get the facts right.

On bitter cold January nights, we’re the people’s eyes and ears at town, village and school board meetings. We tell the stories of our communities, from the fun of a county fair to the despair a family faces when a loved one is killed.

We are always by your side. We shop the same stores, attend the same churches and hike the same trails. We struggle with day care and worry about paying for retirement.

In our work as journalists, our first loyalty is to you. Our work is guided by a set of principles that demand objectivity, independence, open-mindedness and the pursuit of the truth. We make mistakes, we know. There’s nothing we hate more than errors but we acknowledge them, correct them and learn from them.

Our work is a labor of love because we love our country and believe we are playing a vital role in our democracy. Self-governance demands that our citizens need to be well-informed and that’s what we’re here to do. We go beyond the government-issued press release or briefing and ask tough questions. We hold people in power accountable for their actions. Some think we’re rude to question and challenge. We know it’s our obligation.

People have been criticizing the press for generations. We are not perfect. But we’re striving every day to be a better version of ourselves than we were the day before.

That’s why we welcome criticism. But unwarranted attacks that undermine your trust in us cannot stand. The problem has become so serious that newspapers across the nation are speaking out against these attacks in one voice this week on their editorial pages.

As women’s rights pioneer and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote in 1892: “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

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More than a week after the New York Daily News slashed half of its editorial staff, including writers and photographers, the news still stings.

Many of the journalists at TBR News Media aren’t residents of the areas we cover, but we feel like honorary members of the communities. We can imagine how heartbreaking it must be for the former staff members of the Daily News to be ripped from the neighborhoods that probably once felt like home to them.

But there is a bigger issue. Both daily and weekly newspapers face the same battle every day — how to keep serving the public effectively while staying afloat financially. Once upon a time, print media only had to worry about radio and television news shows when it came to competition, but newspapers usually had the edge because they were portable. There was a time when it wasn’t unusual to see someone walking out of a stationery store or deli with a newspaper tucked under their arm.

However, in a time of infinite niche websites and social media, finding ways to stay current and viable is a daunting task. Most people have some type of portable device where they can quickly pull up a news site or see what articles their friends are sharing on social media. It also doesn’t help when many feel that if a media outlet doesn’t agree with their views, then it must be “fake news.” To compound the issue, the president of the United States has refused to take questions from journalists representing certain media outlets. Most recently at an international press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May in England, Trump said he wouldn’t take questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta and NBC’s Kristen Welker.

Despite the problems print media and even the media in general are facing, there are solutions — even though we feel a bit uncomfortable with the suggestion of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for an unspecified bailout of the Daily News. A news outlet receiving money from an entity the writers report on may lead to problems in the future. Which leads to the only people who can save print media: the readers, both current and potential.

There are the obvious things people can do to save the industry such as buying newspapers and frequenting the businesses who advertise in them. And readers can educate themselves. There may be “fake news” out there, but pieces of false information can be weeded out.

It is incumbent upon and a requirement of citizenry to know the difference between information intentionally manufactured to mislead and factual information presented from a viewpoint different from one’s own. If journalism were as simple as making up sources and quotes to fit a desired narrative, we’d like our time back spent late at night at civic association and school board meetings, for example, and all of the other hard work that goes into informing the public. It is offensive and dangerous to lump this in with deliberately false drivel circulating on say, Facebook and Twitter.

Most of all, readers can remember they are part of a newspapers’ family, especially when it comes to TBR News Media’s publications. If you have something you want to see in our pages or have a news tip, our phone lines are always open.

A paper is only as good as its sources and, most of all, the readers it serves.

It’s no secret that newspapers, large and small, are financially hurting. We know the reasons as well. The internet makes shopping possible from our bedrooms and sometimes at a cheaper price than a downtown store. We can send birthday gifts to our grandchildren and friends while we are still in our pajamas and slippers, and the items will arrive nicely wrapped and on time. This in turn makes retailing difficult, from box stores and malls to neighborhood shops. So many of the large (like Toys “R” Us, Genovese Drug Stores) and the smaller (like Swezey’s) and mom-and-pop stores have given up. While the larger stores advertised in the dailies, these smaller businesses reached their customers in the immediate vicinity through the local papers, and they were the backbone of the hometown newspapers’ financial model. Fewer such businesses are left, and some of those place their ads only on the internet. The nature of shopping and of advertising has been profoundly disrupted.

So we have a publication like the New York Daily News, once the paper with the highest circulation in America, cutting half their editorial department in order to survive. And we have any number of community newspapers closing their doors and leaving their hometowns without an effective voice to protect them. Failure to adequately monetize their own investments in the internet by struggling papers has been part of the problem.

The difference between larger dailies and smaller weeklies is more than size. When a daily cuts back or gives up, there are other news sources that can fill the gap for national and international news. But when the community papers and websites disappear, the local issues that arise at school board or town board or civic or chamber of commerce meetings, or on a particular block with high crime or tainted water or garbage dumping or illegal development, those are not necessarily picked up by the remaining bigger news outlets. The stop signs and potholes are local matters, and for the most part they need local coverage.

That recognition is the reason that the State of New Jersey has now put up millions of dollars in its budget to help pay for community journalism. Say what? How can that be? After all, news media are supposed to be the watchdogs of the people against those who would take advantage, especially those corrupt officials in government. So how can government subsidize media and the residents still expect the media to independently investigate government?

Since the earliest days and the first leaders of our republic, people have known that a democracy cannot exist without independent news sources. That is why the First Amendment — the first before all others — protects freedom of the press. It is the only industry enshrined in our Constitution. And for those local legislators and executives and judges, the local newspapers are the ones who disseminate the news of what our officials are doing to help us.

So it is not so odd that local officials want to come to our aid. They need us just as we need to watch over them. Can this relationship exist in an independent, nonpartisan fashion?

I think it can if there is a neutral party between us. Public television, like my favorite PBS “NewsHour,” and radio stations get funding (not a lot) from the government. “It’s not about saving journalism in New Jersey,” Mike Rispoli, director of an advocacy group on behalf of local media, said in The New York Times. “It’s about making sure our communities are engaged and informed.”

So if funds are awarded to media by boards made up of representatives from the communities, like state universities, community organizations and technology groups as well as government officials, the goal of independent journalism can be met. There is a fine line here not to be crossed.

See editorial for another view on this topic.

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