If you don’t know who that is, Ernie Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent during the Second World War. He was known for his ability to tell the stories of the ordinary American soldier.
After having covered the war across Europe, North Africa and the Pacific, in the air and on the ground, he was felled by a Japanese machine gunner on a small island northwest of Okinawa just months before the end of the war.
He is also the patron saint of columnists, and each year the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, of which I am a member, celebrates the day as National Columnists’ Day.
In previous years, we posted pictures of ourselves practicing our craft as part of our #IamAColumnist campaign, but as the organization’s president put so well, given our extraordinary circumstances, this didn’t seem appropriate.
Instead, we were challenged to either highlight a columnist who may have influenced Pyle, or a 25-word-or-less tribute to Pyle.
I chose the latter:
“Ernie Pyle’s example emphasizes the timeless necessity of journalism: Telling stories — good, bad, humorous, tragic and incomprehensible — to encourage understanding, compassion and hope in society.”
I chose those words because newspapers are suffering enormously in these unprecedented times.
It was not a healthy industry before this crisis, the business model was changing. Advertising, so long the backbone of a newspaper’s budget, was migrating to web platforms. Platforms the industry has had a lot of difficulty monetizing. Weeklies were closing up shop, dailies were cutting back on the number of days they were printing, and investors with dubious goals were swooping in to pick the bones.
One hedge fund, a notorious cost cutter in the industry, has its claws in its own MediaNews Group, Gannett, Tribune, and now Lee Enterprises (which took over Berkshire Hathaway’s properties when Warren Buffett gave up on the industry). With McClatchy on the ropes, having filed for bankruptcy protection in February, can an investment there be far behind?
The result has been what we call news deserts — places where no one delivers local news. And in many of the places where newspapers are still printing, they are underfunded shells of their once great mastheads, hardly worth the price of a subscription.
For many local newspapers, the writing was on the wall, it was only a matter of time. COVID-19 has only hastened that process, even as internet traffic has flooded to newspaper websites in search of information, as most newspapers have dropped their paywalls as a public service in these trying times.
The Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school and research organization, keeps a running tally— an obit column for newspapers, if you will — of the toll this pandemic is taking on the newspaper industry. Alt weeklies in cities, reliant on nightlife advertising, were some of the first to go. Many small weeklies soon followed, and some dailies are cutting back to a couple of days a week on their print products. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, a once-great metro daily, has effectively disappeared. Furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs are rampant at newspapers nationwide.
Chances are, when the “new normal” resumes, it will be without many of those organizations. Some in Congress are pushing for funding to help newspapers, but as we so often see in these situations, it may be too little, too late.
I know there are more than a few who rejoice at that thought. Motivated by politics and perceptions, they see journalism as an enemy, and are blind to the positives a good newspaper provides to a community.
Of course, there is the role of being a local government watchdog for the community, attending and parsing local meetings the general public may not have time to attend, shining a light on budgets and decisions.
But there is also the living section, highlighting the good deeds people in the community perform. The local events to attend. There are the stories about local businesses. And, always, the sports section, where kids get in the paper and their feats are celebrated.
Certainly, there is the editorial page, and the columnists with their opinions. The polarizing national and state politics. But there is also vital information on how we are all battling this virus and surviving these trying times. Together.
Two quick examples stories I read from beginning to end this week to illustrate my point, both from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and both from sportswriters:
- Bob Brookover’s remembrance of the late Kevin Roberts, a sportswriter squeezed out of the business by economics but went on to an inspiring second life running a newspaper giving voice to the homeless.
- Mike Sielski’s moving piece on how Kobe Bryant’s death brought a high school friend back to life, for both himself, his network of friends and the family.
Two stories in a newspaper that weren’t about Trump, Biden, Sanders, Republicans, Democrats or polarizing politics. Just two stories that needed to be told and had a profound effect on me, and from the response, many others.
And that, in a nutshell, is the timeless necessity of journalism . To tell the stories — good, bad, humorous, tragic and incomprehensible — that encourage understanding, compassion and hope in society.
There will always be a need for information. There will always be a need for speaking truth to power. But most important, through journalism, we gain better understanding of our friends, our neighbors and our communities.
Support local journalism.