“Democracy dies in darkness” is the motto of the Washington Post.
The newspaper was criticized when it adopted the motto in 2017 — pundits said the tone of the motto is too ominous.
That’s perfect. The basic function of a vibrant newspaper is to present facts and ideas that generate debate in its community. People of goodwill can debate the tone of the slogan, but the historical importance of newspapers in American society cannot be debated.
A press, operating independently of government constraint, was considered so vital, so instrumental to a free society that our Founding Fathers made it one of the pillars of our Constitution. We don’t view the fact that a free press is protected in the First Amendment as a coincidence.
“Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” said Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence.
During the next couple centuries, the scope of news coverage, the technology used to bring people the news has changed markedly. The importance of an informed electorate has not.
That’s why a news item reported last week, dimmed the lights of democracy a bit and left all of Southern Illinois a bit poorer.
The Mount Vernon Register-News and the McLeansboro Times-Leader both shut their doors last week. The Register-News, in one form or another, had served the people of Mount Vernon and Jefferson County since 1884.
The Times-Leader began publishing in 1855. Think about that for a moment. Think of the historical events that newspaper brought to the people of Hamilton County – Abraham Lincoln’s election and the Civil War. The Times-Leader was published long before cars were even available to distribute the newspaper.
Sadly, the Register-News and Times-Leader are just the latest Southern Illinois publications to disappear from the landscape. The Eldorado Daily Journal is gone, as is the Herrin Daily Journal, Murphysboro’s Daily Independent and Cairo’s Evening Bulletin.
Although these are admittedly tough economic times for newspapers, the need for an independent press has never been greater.
Think of what the loss of the newspapers mean to the people of Jefferson and Hamilton counties.
There will no longer be a publication to keep a watchful eye on city councils, county boards and school boards. That’s not to say rampant corruption is imminent. However, fair, accurate, timely reporting holds governing bodies accountable to constituents.
There is always a tense relationship between reporters and the mayors, city council members, school board members, senators and representatives they cover. That’s healthy for the functioning of democracy.
It’s human nature for people to attempt shortcuts. Sometimes people succumb to the temptation of trying to enrich themselves on tax dollars meant to serve the public. That’s where newspapers help shine the light on democracy, whether that is by asking difficult questions or filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to insure laws are being followed.
But, there is another element newspapers bring to a community. Newspapers are a daily slice of history for the communities they serve — especially the small towns in Southern Illinois.
Who won last night’s ball game?
Who was born and who passed away?
Newspapers recount the heartbreaking tragedies that all of us endure at some part of our lives. Newspapers tell the stories of people who beat the odds, get things done and those who sacrifice to make all our lives better.
Newspapers make us angry. They fill us with joy. Their clippings fill our scrapbooks. They remind us who we are.
It is the totality of those things that make us sad to bid adieu to our sister newspapers.