Last week, I got a call from a proud grandfather who lives in Austin. He wanted to ask if Austin Weekly News could cover a trunk party his family had this past Sunday for his granddaughter, who is heading off to college.
“She reads the paper all the time,” the man said.
We don’t normally cover trunk parties, but how could I say no? What 18-year-old still reads print newspapers? Let alone a community print newspaper? I felt like I owed her something for paying us any kind of attention.
I couldn’t make the trunk party in person, but I called the proud graduate, Jamara Gilmore, on Sunday to express my gratitude and to ask how she formed such a rare habit — for anybody nowadays, let alone a teenager.
I was suddenly an anthropologist conducting a field study on a vanishing culture that just happens to be my career.
“Reading the newspaper broadens your view on multiple things and gives you the opportunity to know what’s going on around your neighborhood,” Jamara said. “It gives you the idea to try to make a change and to inform others about what’s going on.”
Jamara gave me hope in a moment when I was not particularly hopeful. A few days before my conversation with her, I’d allowed myself some time to look beyond the communities I cover to understand the depth of the danger this country is in.
A sitting American president has politicized federal troops, who are now storming into “Democrat-controlled” cities like Portland to squash peaceful protestors, among them mothers who have offered their bodies as shields to hopefully prevent more unconstitutional kidnappings of dissenting civilians by unidentified federal officers.
And just as this is happening, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted mass layoffs in the media, just as it has in other industries. In April, one prominent Portland media company that publishes some two dozen local papers in the state announced that it had laid off 40 employees in a week — a fifth of its workforce.
We rely on local news outlets to get a snapshot of what’s happening on the ground during instances of protests and other forms of civil unrest, in a manner that is not warped by the toxic and cheap Red-Blue partisanship and tit-for-tat “objectivity” that we see in so many national media outlets.
As local newspapers wither so do perspectives like Jamara’s. What fills the void, particularly in chaotic, overly complex moments like this one? Too often, conspiracy theories like QAnon that are powered by a social media/cable news/talk radio industrial complex that runs on tribal conflict and harebrained divisiveness.
This week, Wednesday Journal turns 40 years old, which is roughly half the average American lifespan. In 1980, the total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers was around 62 million, according to Pew Research Center. By 2018, Pew shows, total circulation was less than half that — around 29 million.
The decline represents more than a loss of newsprint. It represents a loss of an institution that is as vital to the democratic state as suffrage and that performs perhaps the most important function in society.
“Who tells the story creates the world,” writes Christopher Ryan in his 2019 book Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress.
Ryan argues, persuasively in my opinion, that progress is not inevitable and that civilization, for all of its glory, is not necessarily an advancement — in fact may very well be much worse from a quality of life standpoint — over the various nomadic hunter-gathering cultures that it has dominated and banished into so-called “savagery.”
Ryan explains that the consensus among most anthropologists is that foraging societies, throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of their existence, have all shared three “essential qualities”: fierce egalitarianism/sharing, mobility and gratitude.
What we might consider to be our innate human qualities of generosity and mutual respect are, to a large degree, extensions of our hunter-gathering ancestry, whom we tend to dismiss as “noble savages,” Ryan writes.
“Unpredictable environments generate challenges best met through reciprocal generosity and hospitality. To the extent that ‘savages’ are noble, it’s because they evolved in social groups that cultivate and celebrate generous, respectful behaviors as a means of risk mitigation and self-preservation. If these behaviors have become ‘innate,’ they are as innate to you and me as they are to any ‘savages.'”
Ryan quotes anthropologist Marvin Harris, who writes that in “most band and village societies before the evolution of the state, the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoy today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at — or if they would work at all … Neither rent, taxes, nor tribute kept people from doing what they wanted to do.”
And, in many hunter-gathering societies, that radical freedom also applied to women and LGBTQ individuals (“only in the most progressive modern societies are LGBTQ people and women regaining the acceptance and respect they typically received in most foraging societies,” Ryan writes).
The shift from the “egalitarian autonomy of foraging to the coercive power structures of civilization” was traumatic. Again, quoting from Harris, Ryan explains that with “the rise of the state, ordinary men seeking to use nature’s bounty had to get someone else’s permission and had to pay for it with taxes, tribute, or extra labor. …
“For the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, penitentiaries, and concentration camps. Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow.
“In many ways the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery,” Harris writes.
If there was one redeeming institution that emerged after that descent into statehood, that gave humankind some hope of retaining the “noble” qualities of our hunter-gatherer ancestors — it was newsgathering and, eventually, newspapers.
In his book, Ryan shared a Sebastian Junger quotation: “Subsistence-level hunters aren’t necessarily more moral than other people; they just can’t get away with selfish behavior because they live in small groups where almost everything is open to scrutiny.”
In the absence of a culture based on small nomadic groups or villages or hamlets, what other institution cultivates and invites consistent scrutiny? What other institution is, by definition, without walls and is committed to openness as an operating principal?
Despite our 21st century gadgetry — from Facebook to the iPhone — mankind has yet to invent a technology as effective at holding our post-nomadic institutions accountable and at cultivating a sense of community and shared existence (beyond our particular tribe or congregation or locality) than the old-fashioned print newspaper?
And I have to distinguish print newspapers from digital-only news or TV news or even radio news, because as much as I love those other technologies, they’re just not the same as print. Reading a print newspaper forces your attention in a way that the internet does not. And reading a print newspaper with news about your own community is particularly empowering.
Can you imagine anyone nowadays, let alone a teenager, saying about Facebook or TikTok or Instagram or even online news sites what Jamara said about print newspapers?
As Ryan explains, just because something is increasingly considered old-fashioned or primitive doesn’t mean that it’s unnecessary or not vital or without a lesson for our lives today.
Right now, as I type, there are fully grown, bipedal Homo sapiens who can’t name their mayor or local city council members, but believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is controlled by trained Marxists or that the coronavirus is a hoax or that Donald Trump was chosen by God for God knows what.
In 2018, Politico reported that in the 2016 election, Trump “outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn’t do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.” Politico’s study covered “more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level.”
And the results, the publication explained, “show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012. Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.”
In the last week, as I’ve watched the country descend deeper into authoritarianism, I’ve clung to books like Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, a pocket-sized pamphlet of just 125 pages that I urge you to run out and buy from Oak Park’s beloved Book Table, 1045 Lake St., if you don’t already have a copy.
Lesson two is this: “Defend institutions.”
“It is institutions that help us preserve decency,” Snyder writes. “They need our help as well. Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about … and take its side.”
With that said, your local newspaper is accepting donations.