Notes of a Binge Thinker

Thoughts from NTLP's Executive Director

Where have all the Newspapers Gone?

“Even as the future viability of daily newspapers is called into question, they continue to serve as indispensable sources of local, national, and international information. As such, newspapers provide high-quality public service journalism that is critical to the functioning of a vibrant democracy. The newsgathering resources and investigative reporting arsenals commanded by daily newspapers typically dwarf those of any other local media. In many markets, the local newspaper has more reporters on the street than all other local media combined. As a result, newspapers are often the most effective-and in some cases may be the only credible-watchdogs of business and local government.”
-Statement of Brian P. Tierney Chief Executive Officer Philadelphia Newspapers, LLC Committee on House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy April 21, 2009

The quote above was taken from a congressional hearing transcript on the future of the newspaper industry.  I believe it illustrates nicely the role newspapers have played in our society.  With so many of these newspapers facing bleak futures, I believe there are some opportunities for libraries in the next decade, which is the reason I selected this as my theme for this month’s identity crisis series:  Where have all the newspapers gone?

Here are two roles that I discovered in my research this month.

1.  Public Libraries as Civic Agents. Like the quote above highlights, newspapers have always been critical to the functioning of our great democracy because they provide an invaluable source of information on the local, national and international levels.  Without this news, citizens would be less informed about matters of civic discourse.  Taylor Winningham wrote in her article, Libraries as Civic Agents, about the future of libraries when it comes to civic matters. “…at a time when people are turning away from the public quare-the public is frustrated with politics, problems seem insurmountable, and there is little trust in many of our public institutions-libraries can also be the leaders in revitalizing our democratic practices. Libraries can become indispensable by actively seeking opportunities to use their unique positions of trust and credibility to solve community problems. Not just passive sources of information or partners on short-term projects, libraries can be the lead agency in tackling pervasive social problems.” (Libraries as Civic Agents, Taylor Winningham, Public Library Quarterly, Vol. 27(2) 2008, p. 97-110)

Willingham goes on to write that “They (libraries) are helping constituents learn about complex public issues and practice deliberative democracy, and are listening deeply to the concerns of members of their community and developing strategies to help them work together on divisive issues. They are civic agents creating civic agency.” (Willingham. P. 99)

Civic literacy, as I have labeled it, is something that newspapers have always done for its communities in the past.  If an individual wanted to learn about issues relevant to their lives, the newspaper was the place often visited by the individual.  Without a community newspaper, where does one go to learn about the “complex public issues.”   Why not the library?  Libraries need to be leaders in promoting civic literacy in their communities.  I feel very strongly that as we become even more polarized in our ideals as a nation, that it is even more important that citizens receive strong, objective guidance on the pertinent issues.  The library can play this role in the next decade and add even more value in the eyes of its stakeholders.

Willingham goes on to write that libraries need to be the leaders in civic matters and step up to spark civic discussion.  “What if libraries stepped up and called upon the public to engage with each other to solve problems? What if the libraries were to fill the leadership role that so many people feel is missing in our public life. Libraries are well suited for this leadership role as one of the most trusted public institutions. At a time when people are longing for leaders that tap into their hopes and dreams, perhaps libraries can take on that role.” (Willingham, p 104)

How does a library do this?  National Issues forum is a great place to start to learn about the process of promoting civic discourse.  You can check out their website at

2.  Public Libraries as Local History Agents.  Newspapers have also always played the role of recording the local community history.   What happens to this local history when the newspapers disappear?  Once again, there is an opportunity here for libraries to fulfill a valuable role.  Scott Nicholson, Associate Professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, wrote a nice piece on the PLA blog entitled, Threats to Newspapers are Opportunities for Libraries ( In it, he outlines three possible roles libraries could play in keeping local history.

”    The local television stations continue to create local news items. While video clips are not as easy to scan as newspaper articles, the library could partner with local television stations to create a single community archive of items significant to the history of an area. Many stations will also have transcripts of their stories, and these could be embedded in the search functions.
”    As libraries become more participatory places where library patrons create items as well as consume items, the members of the community could become the journalists for that community. The library can lead an effort to empower members of the community to create news items, training them on what is important to collect and how to present the news in a standardized form so that it can be easily archived.

”    Libraries can reach out right now to their struggling newspapers and discuss a partnership. While libraries know about the development, organization, and access of collections, they typically have little experience in collecting interviews and oral histories and knowing how to create these news stories. There are journalists at closing newspapers who might be thrilled with the idea of working for a library as a news director, organizing the collection of stories, training librarians and community members in how to collect the local news, and continuing their work in a different setting. The newspapers have a network of advertisers who might be able to help fund a projects.

For me, the second one really hits home.  Libraries are becoming community gathering places.  It might serve for a library to have a place set up for people to record their impressions on community events and happenings and make this available via the web to the community at large.  With technology at the point it is today, it would not be a large investment for a library to purchase a flip camera and set up a computer workstation for this purpose.  Neat!!!

What role will your library step up to play in the vacuum left by failing local newspapers?  I encourage you to explore the two possibilities outlined above and consider including them in your long range planning for the future.

Next month, I will explore the library as a community gathering place.

Read the rest of my column!


Written by amwlkaw

April 1, 2010 at 8:23 am

Posted in Misc

%d bloggers like this: