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Literature in a Hurry: The death of print is exaggerated

MORRIS – During Tuesday’s Stevens County Board of Commissioners meeting, the commissioners passed a boiler-plate resolution developed by the Association of Minnesota Counties in favor of two bills introduced during the legislative session last spring. These bills would allow local governments to post official public notices on a government website rather than in an official newspaper.

During the short discussion before the vote, Commissioner Phil Gausman called the resolution “another nail in the coffin of print media” – a comment made in my direction that I can’t let stand without a response.

Whether Commissioner Gausman’s comment was meant seriously or simply in jest, suggesting or lamenting that print media is dying is as short-sighted as the constant refrain that small towns and rural communities are dying too.

There are a lot of reasons why the perception that print media is dying makes me feisty. Most often “the death of print media” is conflated with and substituted for the “the death of journalism,” which I strongly believe is untrue.

How your local news is delivered may eventually change – it’s entirely possible that we’ll live in a future without a printed newspaper – but local journalism via your local newspaper isn’t going anywhere soon.

It’s not just journalists who will make that argument. A recent survey by a leading market research firm found that a full 89 percent of Minnesotans have accessed a newspaper or a newspaper website during a typical month. Seventy-eight percent access local news in a typical week.

The Morris Sun Tribune is delivered to 2,700 households each week. In the last month, we’ve recorded more than 45,000 visits to our website. Our website has also been recognized as one of the best weekly newspaper websites in the state of Minnesota for the last two years. I’m really proud of that accomplishment, since an active, informative website is a team effort from everyone on our staff.

That same survey revealed that Minnesotans consistently rank newspaper and newspaper websites as the best places to get useful information on schools, high school sports, things to do, crime, and, yes, local government.

And while I don’t want to beat the public notices drum too hard right now, the survey also showed that 78 percent of Minnesotans felt that publishing public notices in the newspaper is an important requirement for keeping citizens informed.

I think citizens should also be concerned that a local elected official is joking about the death of print media. Members of the media – in our community, print and radio – are the only people who regularly sit through the public meetings of local government and report to citizens what happened. The entire civic function of the press is to hold officials accountable for what they say and do. Without media, who would regularly, accurately and fairly do that?

In addition to the civic functions of the press, your local newspaper is a local business that pays taxes and employs local residents.

Given the board’s general and consistent support for local businesses when possible, it is inconsistent for Commissioner Gausman to celebrate, even in jest, a vote that he believes will be detrimental to an industry with a local representative. I can’t imagine that an elected official would joke about the death of a manufacturing firm or the death of local car dealerships in a public meeting… why journalism?

Local journalism, in print or online or in another format we haven’t imagined yet, is both vibrant and important. Rumors of the demise of media have been greatly exaggerated – a fact I hope those in power in our community will remember in the future.