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Newspapers are more than a fish wrap

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A lifelong love affair with newspapers has consumed me. From the Catskill Mt. News, which carried my birth announcement, to the New York Times, which didn’t, newspapers have provided me with a lifetime of excitement, frustration, extreme satisfaction, quiet gratification and a career beyond comparison.

Finley Peter Dunne wrote that a newspaper “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” and I have adopted that credo as my own. Those of you who read this column might understand that.

This week is National Newspaper Week. A couple decades ago, in 1993, there were 1,556 daily newspapers in the United States.

Today, there are 1,382. And some of those papers have become daily on the Internet but only occasional on the street.

As the number of papers declines, the drumbeat that backs up the chant “Newspapers are dead” gets louder. The reality is, to paraphrase another 19th century humorist, reports of our death are greatly exaggerated.

There is no doubt we are an industry in flux. We are, as a group, struggling to find ways to stem the ebbtide of revenue caused by lower circulation and falling advertising sales.

But the nation’s newspapers still offer a product that people need: news. News of government, news of industry, news of the markets, news of health and science and sports and cooking and death and life and, most importantly of all, news of people.

While we are finding that we must find multiple paths of presentation for our product — newsprint, e-editions, our website, Twitter and Facebook, and who knows what is to come — the product’s value is not in dispute. Newspapers provide what the people need — often, whether they know it or not.

Through all the turmoil and uncertainty, I have the privilege to work with a bunch of craftsmen, men and women who value the news, and the language, and the truth. And I’m going to let them speak directly to you here, tell you why they do what they do.

n Jacob Tierney: “I’m a reporter because there is always more to learn. Every day I talk to new people and discover something new, then I pass that info along to our readers. The work is almost always unique, challenging and fulfilling.”

n Dan Flatley: “I’ve wanted to be a writer since high school when a couple of well-intentioned teachers unwittingly sent me down the path to profligacy and poverty. I held on to that dream through five years in the military before paying for my English Lit degree with the G.I. Bill. Then I needed a job. It wasn’t until after I became a reporter that I realized how much I enjoy talking to people and finding the drama and dignity and humanity in every story.”

n Ted Booker: “I enjoy learning and reporting about something new every day. The unpredictability of not knowing what’s going to happen keeps the job fresh and interesting.”

n Rebecca Madden: “I serve as liaison from sources to members of the public who have the right to know information. I became a reporter because I have a passion for sharing people’s compelling stories. It’s also rewarding to have my stories help a school find a physics teacher, create awareness for rare diseases and disorders, and update the community about where programs and services of various nonprofit agencies stand.”

n Craig Fox: “It was in ninth grade when I first decided I wanted to be a reporter. We put together a mock newspaper of the day’s happenings and my young, influential English teacher told me I had talent as a writer, so I went to J. school. All these years later, I am still passionate about my job. It’s different every day. I get to meet interesting people and tell their stories. There is not another job like it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

n Katie Anderson: “My first choice would’ve been to stay in school my entire life, majoring in everything, because, as a curious person, I love to be on the receiving side of education. Since that would not have been a realistic or economically plausible career path, I chose newspaper reporting. I’m constantly meeting new people, going places I’ve never been before and learning new things about unlimited topics. It’s a constant educational experience that I can share with others through my passion for writing.”

n Jae Lee: “I chose this field simply thinking I’d never be bored. The job can be stressful because of the unpredictable nature of the work. But I also get to meet people I would never cross paths with under normal circumstances and learn about a variety of issues that I never thought I’d find interesting. There are unusual things happening out there, and I feel privileged to work for a newspaper where I can satisfy my curiosity and share my experiences.”

n W.T. Eckert: “Every minute of my life, leading up to the moment I set foot in a newsroom, was preparation in finding out what I was meant to do. And once I was in the newsroom, I knew I was home. A newspaper was once the fabric that held a community together and kept it informed. I still believe that to be one of the two most essential purposes of a newspaperman. That and the truth. Always tell the truth!”

n Brian Kelly: “I became interested in becoming a reporter watching John O’Donnell and John Day sitting at the end of the bench covering sports for the Times in the 1970s and 1980s. I thought, ‘That’s got to be the coolest job ever,’ watching games and describing the action. If only it was that easy. As a reporter, you have to become knowledgeable about something new virtually every day and then distill this information into a form that is understandable to readers. That’s challenging. If I can’t explain why an issue is important, how can readers be expected to care? It’s that challenge, and meeting readers’ expectations, that keeps reporting vibrant. Plus, I now get to work with O’D and John.”

n Steve Virkler: “I enjoy being a newspaper reporter because it gives me the opportunity to better inform people about what is going on in their communities. Governments operate best when they have input from an informed public. And with so many sources of information now available literally at one’s fingertips, it is vital for people to have a news source they trust to provide them accurate, unbiased and timely information, rather than half-truths and partisan rhetoric. Newspapers provide that service.”

This is a long column, but I think it’s a good read. And I can’t sign off without also lauding the members of the Times copy desk, the “grammar nazis” who take good writing and make it better. It’s a great team, at a pretty good little newspaper. I’m proud to be a part of it.

Perry White is the city editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may send emails to pwhite@wdt.net.

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