I learned about the importance of telling a good story — something your publications try to do each and every day — from a Tennessean who was a dear friend of mine. His name was Alex Haley and he became famous for telling stories, in particular those of his African ancestry in his best-selling novel, Roots.
Perhaps most importantly, he lived his life by these six words “Find the good and praise it.” When I think about the good in our Tennessee communities — what makes them strong and special — hometown newspapers telling local stories certainly qualify.
The power of stories is all around us. Alex Haley once told me that when I went to make a speech that if I told a story instead, people might actually listen to what I had to say. I’ve found that to be true. And small, hometown newspapers demonstrate the power of storytelling — both the good and bad facing their communities — in a way that can be difficult to come by in our 24/7 media environment.
For Alex Haley, the power of stories came to him when was a child, listening to his grandmother and aunts tell the stories of his ancestors.
He used to say that his Aunt Liz and Aunt Plus, sitting on the porch telling those stories, could knock a firefly out of the sky at 14 feet with an accurate stream of tobacco juice. Alex Haley went on to tell those stories in Roots, the story of Kunta Kinte — an African who was captured and sold into slavery — and his ancestors.
For community newspapers, stories take on many forms.
Our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment into the U.S. Constitution to protect the rights of the American people to organize and speak up and speak out. Local newspapers play a vital role in helping people do that — covering local government activity and sometimes unveiling problems facing a community or its leaders. Our Founders even used local newspapers to speak out as they organized against the King, and wrote the Declaration of Independence.
There’s also plenty that local newspapers do to bring people together. From covering local community events to telling the stories of local residents, small, hometown newspapers tell people what they need to know to feel connected to one another. Sometimes these stories can even inspire.
And despite how much media has changed in recent years, local community newspapers can also do quite a lot to connect people to the outside world. I know this to be true as I work on fixing the federal debt, taking more decisions out of Washington and back to Tennessee and pushing back against the regulations that are throwing a big, wet blanket over the economy.
I can’t always expect the voices in local newspapers to agree with me. But by asking questions and writing about issues of importance to Tennesseans (and letting me have my say in a story or opinion column once in a while) community papers provide an important service.
And whatever the major issues of the day, good stories surround us always. I think back to my friend Alex Haley, and a man he met in Knoxville named Joseph Rivera. Alex found out that Joseph couldn’t read, so he taught him and then wrote about him in Parade magazine — a great example of his motto “find the good and praise it.”
Tennesseans in communities all across our state could just as easily pick up a copy of their small, hometown newspaper. It’s important to see our shortcomings. But it’s also important to find the good and praise it, and local newspapers do that for their communities every time they go to print.
LAMAR ALEXANDER wrote this for the National Newspaper Association. This week is National Newspaper Week. Established in 1885, the National Newspaper Association represents 2,200 owners, publishers and editors of America’s community newspapers. NNA’s mission is to protect, promote and enhance America’s community newspapers. Visit NNA at www.nnaweb.org.