Each October, seven days are set aside to observe “National Newspaper Week.” Not too many years ago, the entire month of October was known as “National Newspaper Month.”

The purpose of the observance — this year from Oct. 7-13 — is to acknowledge the belief that journalism matters because democracy matters. The two fit like hand and glove.

Without journalists free to seek and report the truth, open and honest government probably would be rare. Even in America, there are people on the left and on the right who seek daily to limit the scope of a free press.

Government employees seemed to think we were poking into their business, when, in fact, we were there to represent the people and report on what they were doing.  

American patriots like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson fought hard for an open government. There were strong forces at work in the early days of America to keep the government private. 

Those forces did not want the public’s nose in government. Most other countries were led by autocratic kings and princes who put to the lash or the noose anyone who spoke up about their covert activities.

If there is no free press, no access to government information, democracy cannot work. What is left is fascism or communism — the state and its news operations joining forces against the people. 

Many folks today rail against journalists, claiming we are biased in our reporting. Or that we wish to destroy opponents. But this is a charge without merit and most certainly far from the norm. There is a bad apple in the batch every now and then, but not often. 

Every journalist I’ve known held fast to the principles of fairness and accuracy. 

Newspapers, by their choice, can be Republican or Democrat in their opinions, but neither is or should be opinioned in their news columns. I can look long and hard at newspapers today and it would be very, very rare to find even one that prints fake or false news. We share a strong sense of responsibility for the truth.

What we see mostly on TV news talk shows are opinions, and we can’t call that responsible journalism. But if you want fake news, you can find it easily on the Internet. There are fake news sites galore, and phony journalists filling them with non-truth junk.

Newspapers can, in their editorial writing, be labeled liberal or conservative, but not in their reporting. Newspapers print opinion columns from both the Democrat and Republican points of view and label them as such. 

Back in my salad days, during National Newspaper Week, we used to hold open house for the townspeople to drop by, enjoy refreshments, tour the paper and press room and chat with writers and editors. There was nothing to hide and nothing we wanted hidden. 

Other papers viewed the week and observance as no big deal. After all, every profession or calling has its own week or month to celebrate and toot a loud horn. They felt responsible journalism was seen as a given. 

But there was then, as now, a bigger purpose in mind that went beyond just newspapers. The week or month celebrated freedom of speech and freedom of opinion of all Americans, not just journalists. These are two sacred freedoms central to our democratic form of government.

I can say this: we never felt special as newspaper writers and editors. We felt we were serving the best interests of our readers by keeping them informed of what the city or town and its residents were doing. Our writing was never from any point of bias but from the truth as best we knew or understood it. 

From what I can observe from their reporting, the writers at The Villager lay it out there each week as it happens. There is no opinion bias in what they write. None.

I see their devotion to a free and responsible press in the work they do and in the articles they write for each week’s edition. It takes discipline and hours of dedicated work to put The Villager in your hands each week. 

Some newspapers, especially the big city dailies, relish thundering editorially on their responsibility to protect our freedoms. At times, their thundering goes over the top and they have to be reined back in. In fact, this railing gives newspapers a bad name.

Times have changed, though, and new technology such as the Internet has come upon us.

The Internet has brought with it a time of transition for many papers. Due to cost factors and revenue declines, many newspapers are transitioning away from print to web. The papers and their missions continue to exist, but in a different format.

Community newspapers like The Auburn Villager are straining to keep a print paper in existence along with an Internet edition online because community journalism matters to them. 

There was a time when the big city papers had stringer writers in small towns within their circulation areas who contributed their news happenings each day or week.

As the big papers shrunk down their coverage zones, based solely on costs, many of these small community towns lost their only source of news. It was a sad day for them when it happened.

Keep in mind that few countries in the world tip their hats annually to the mission of newspapers. There are more countries with closed governments than there are with open governments.

There was a time — and not too long ago — when newspapers were an integral part of our lives. We looked to them for guidance during periods of national crisis. 

I began my career working at a Scripps-Howard newspaper in Birmingham, the morning Post-Herald. Its motto, printed daily at the top of page one, was a quote from the Bible: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”

Our mission each day was to live up to that motto — to keep the flame of democracy burning. 

Looking back over the years from a newspaper vantage point, I ask myself: Where would our country be today if it did not have the freedom of press during all those years? 

Would our sacred freedoms have survived without a free press? Would the sacred light of freedom still be burning?

Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives in nearby Phenix City. His email is r.morris@ctvea.net

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