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Margaret's Musings: Democracy, a free press and shopping locally

While I was actively engaged in promoting newspapers in education, I frequently shared with teachers the following quote by Thomas Jefferson:

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

At the same time, I gave tours of the newspaper operation in Red Wing to student and community groups. We had everything under one roof in an old downtown building. The presses were in the basement, administration on the top floor, the news room and advertising on the main floor. Back then is wasn't glamorous, but we all were proud of working together, most of the time harmoniously, to get a paper out six days a week. When you could hear and feel the presses rolling, you knew it was on to producing the next edition.

The tours always started in the advertising department because then, as now, advertising was the sustaining blood of the newspaper. It quite frankly makes the press go around (and the Web site) and pays for our salaries. Subscriptions generally pay for the ink and newsprint.

By the time you read this, some of you may have attended the HIBA seminar on shopping locally. I would like to suggest that the next time you purchase something locally you inquire as to whether the retailer, restaurant or service company advertises with us in either print or online.

Then, if you are so inclined, encourage them to do so. This may seem like a bold suggestion, but while our industry is going through an evolution due largely to the Internet, community journalism is still a very important part of the democratic process.

By supporting local businesses that in turn support community journalism you are actually helping maintain a free exchange of information and ideas.

"Almost any issue has more than one voice. It is a way to share all the voices so the electorate is well informed," said Brian Steffen, executive director of the National Newspaper Association. "A good newspaper tries to give voice to all reasonable voices, as opposed to a blogger, who for the most part only speaks with one voice."

"A vital newspaper is generally a reflection of a vital community," continued Steffen. "A thriving community needs a well-rounded economy, and the newspaper is part of that dynamic."

Print journalism was part of the big picture plotted out by our founding fathers. For well over a century it's been referred to as the "Fourth Estate." In our system, the three branches of government, judicial, executive and legislative, represent the first three estates. Print journalism, the fourth estate, has been the watchdog over the others.

According to Wikipedia, the earliest use of the term "fourth estate" to mean the press was made in 1841 when Thomas Carlyle wrote "[British politician Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all."

The free press is a cornerstone of democracy, regardless of the form it takes, but it is the print media that traditionally has held governments and companies accountable. While it is my personal opinion the national press corps has fallen dismally short of those lofty ideals in recent years. The community press nationwide is still doing a pretty good job of keeping their readership informed. Across America, over 7,000 community newspapers employ 140,000. Most of them are small shops employing 20 to 36 people.

Rick Brooks, the HIBA presenter, pointed out during an interview last week, that it makes a difference when you know the person you are dealing with. For those of us who bring you the news week after week, we have a significant responsibility, different from any other group professing to be journalists. We have the pleasure, sometimes uncomfortable, of meeting and greeting you on the street, at public events and as we go through our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps if we all started to actively think of ourselves as connected to and owning our government at all levels, reading the paper (print or online) would give us a sense of empowerment. So, consider my suggestion and shop locally - it just may help in ways you couldn't imagine.