Sunshine Week a time to reflect on the value of newspapers

Today, news organizations across this state and nation, mark the beginning of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to recognize the importance of open government and a free and unfettered press in America.

The newspaper fulfills an essential role in helping citizens keep an eye on their public servants. It helps to ensure that the government is operating in the best interests of the people it is intended to serve.

One of the greatest services this newspaper can provide is to inform its readers of the events and issues of the day and to provide a public forum for civil discourse that allows for expression of opinions, pro and con, on topics of concern to readers.

Even though newspaper readership across all the platforms now served, from print to online, is actually quite healthy, the economy is not.

In Michigan, all news outlets, like all businesses, are being challenged by the weak economy. Nationally, the news media are struggling as well. Make no mistake, newspapers are hardly alone in these troubling times; radio and TV audiences have fragmented far more and at an alarming rate.

The unfortunate result of these media travails is that the citizens of this country are not being as well-served by the news organizations that had long provided them with substantive and investigative coverage of issues of importance. This is a troubling development as we see increased polarization among people, more anonymous sources and less scrutiny of the provenance of information.

Against that context, unfettered, unbiased journalism — the kind historically practiced by the best newspapers — becomes even more essential.

Newspapers still provide the greatest depth and breadth of coverage, and much of this top-notch journalism is being provided for free online. Recent results of a survey of 3,050 adult Internet users by comScore conducted on behalf of the Newspaper Association of America showed that newspaper Web sites are the single most visited and most trusted source of online local news.

Overall, for 57 percent of the respondents, local newspaper Web sites are the No. 1 destination for various kinds of local information — more than all other online local news media combined.

The proportion of respondents ranking newspaper Web sites as their primary destination for local content rose to 60 percent among college-educated respondents and 63 percent among well-to-do households.

And so, during this Sunshine Week, we acknowledge the value of and need for newspapers.

If the economic forces driving these lean times end up helping people to develop a greater appreciation for their local newspaper, that’s not a bad outcome.

But more important is for all citizens to realize that they actually have a stake in this remarkable facet of a democracy — a free press.