Print is dead. We've heard it too often.

We've heard dinosaurs mentioned in the same sentence as print. Buggy whips, too. Print is obsolete, having outlived its usefulness in the face of the digital revolution, it is said. Social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram — are now the primary source of "news" for many young people.

A friend of ours recently asked a group of young people if they read the local newspaper. The looks on their faces communicated a single message: "You're kidding, aren't you?" Facebook. That's where they get their news.

Obviously, we in the industry don't believe print is dead. Nor do we think that a person can get the news needed to be an informed citizen through social media. What passes as news today is entertainment, gossip, rumor and the latest crime news. Give a person who doesn't read the local newspaper a quiz on the most important news stories in their community, and they will fail miserably.

Not all old technology is buried by innovation. In its simplicity, the windmill remains relevant through refinement. At its core it is the same, but with enhanced productivity. Drive around the countryside, and you will see giant windmill blades sweeping slowly in circles pushed by the wind, creating clean energy that feeds into the nation's electric grid.

Standing windmills have been used for more than 800 years. They are an ancient technology that provided water for human consumption, as well as for livestock and crops. They were used to grind grain into flour. It was in 1888 that the windmill was first used to generate electricity.

As the nation turned to coal, hydroelectric dams and nuclear energy, with a nationwide grid connecting their power to homes and businesses, windmills disappeared from the landscape. Why the resurgence of this ancient technology? Because its simple design has been improved to provide cheap, clean energy at a scale that allows it to replace more expensive and polluting sources of power.

We like to think of print newspapers as windmills. Print is still relevant.

Print book sales continue to rise, having gone up every year since 2013, while sales of digital books have flattened out. Even with significant price breaks on the digital books, people still want the print edition.

Studies have shown that while students prefer to get their textbooks digitally, they do better when their books are in print. Multiple studies have shown reading print increases a person's retention and understanding of what they have read. At the same time, digital reading leads to shallow comprehension.

Then there are all those catalogs you get in the mail.

There is a reason L.L. Bean relentlessly sends you catalogs in the mail. It knows that if it stops sending magazines and relies on e-mails or its website to try to get you to buy its products, you'll soon forget about it. Competitors like Eddie Bauer will then dominate the market.

The people who run L.L. Bean know they must constantly keep their brand fresh in your memory. They know you will page through their magazine and maybe see something you like, then go to their website to buy it. They know their magazine on the counter is a constant reminder to shop with them.

While the wind is free, the technology to turn it into renewable energy is not. Windmills cost money. They must be repaired when their generators or gears wear out. The powerlines that bring electricity to homes and businesses must be serviced.

Essential to providing the information crucial to an informed electorate is revenue earned through advertising and subscriptions. They are the wind, the water and the sun that support us.

Today, Google, Facebook and other internet sites hoard and block our sources of energy. They are a blight on democracy, eroding our sources of reliable news. Rather than creating a sense of community, they isolate and divide us.

Covid-19 was devastating to our already financially wounded newspapers. As businesses shut down or dramatically cut back on expenses, they eliminated or reduced their print advertising. Newspapers suffer "long-hauler" symptoms today, weakened further by the virus' lingering economic impact even as the disease recedes.

The accelerated loss of community newspapers due to the pandemic underscores the imperative to separate newspapers from reliance on subscribers and advertising. Newspapers are a public good and must be financed with the help of citizens.

We are not self-sustaining in today's digital world, though we remain the most important source of newsgathering and reporting in America. In many of our communities, we are the only source of local news.

Like newspapers, democracy is not self-sustaining.

"We also may have become too complacent, too sure of democracy's robustness or of its long-term viability," Margaret S. Branson and Charles N. Quigley wrote in a piece for the Center for Civic Education. "History, however, teaches us that few countries have sustained democratic governments for prolonged periods, a lesson which we as Americans are sometimes inclined to forget."

They paraphrase the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French student of American democracy in the 1830s. "Each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy," they write. "Democracy is not a 'machine that would go of itself,' but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another."

We are clean energy for democracy — we don't pollute citizen knowledge with false information. We don't print vitriolic rants filled with bitterness that polarizes friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. We inform, educate, entertain, and hold power accountable.

What happens to democracy without us?

Reed Anfinson is a past president of the National Newspaper Association and owns the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minnesota. This column was first published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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(1) comment

Jeremy Griffey

Where does this guy live? Certainly not in the United States and he certainly doesn't read the newspaper here.

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