Wednesday, March 19, 2014

152 years on the job and still counting

My column in today's Door County Advocate:

Tis the season called Sunshine Week, when the news media likes to pat itself on the back and perform exercises in government transparency and write columns about our important role as watchdog. And of course there will come the inevitable observations that the watchdog is a little too much of a lapdog in its old age, is barking up certain wrong trees, and has missed more than its share of instances where the government (or some other institution accountable to the public) has fallen down on the job or misused its power.

This week also brings the 152nd anniversary of the first edition of the Door County Advocate, which legend says Joseph Harris started largely because he wanted a platform to advocate for carving a canal through the narrow isthmus that separated the waters of Sturgeon Bay from Lake Michigan.

A firm believer in maritime interests, Harris’ belief in the canal, and his opposition to competing railroads, were so voracious that he is said to have prevented many an encouraging word for railroad developers from appearing on these pages over the years. Within two decades the canal was built, and a few years later Door County became the last of Wisconsin’s 72 counties to gain rail service: power of the press.

And finally, this week also coincides with the 61st anniversary of my arrival on this planet, which legend says involved an anxious wait at a train crossing while Hilda Bluhm was preparing to deliver the second of her three sons. The whole Sunshine Week-anniversary-birthday triple whammy usually leaves me in a contemplative mood.

Around each March 22 I find myself asking the question: What does the Advocate advocate these days? What does it mean to be a Door County advocate in 2014? In its first editorial the paper spoke of encouraging settlers to make a home in this magical place, and 152 years later, we still spend a great deal of time encouraging people to come visit us, while giving voice to those who are concerned that we not spoil the natural beauty that makes it magical in the first place.

We are also here to tell the stories of the people who live and love and die here year-round. Sometimes those stories are uncomfortable, as people who live in a magical place are prone to the same foibles and missteps as people anywhere. Often those stories are heartwarming and even inspiring.That’s why this news outlet (It’s unfashionable to call it “this newspaper” anymore, as paper has become just one of several media in which we work) is here, after all — to tell the stories of this special place and to advocate for its best interests. If that is why we are here, it behooves us to be clear about what those interests are.

We got one of those “I hear the Advocate’s closing down” rumors again the other day — a not-surprising bit of gossip in these days filled with reports about the trials of the newspaper industry. And one day the rumor will be true — after all, it has been circulating all of my life and all things do come to an end eventually. When I was born, people were predicting the incredible new technology called television would eliminate the need for newspapers by the end of the decade. The rumor mongers never did specify which decade.

The important thing to know is that, 152 years later, there is still an office in Door County where people gather each day to collect the news and information about what is happening in this community and dispense it to you in a readable and convenient form. (And by the way, this is still a gathering of people who live here and love this place.)

If you have a story to tell or an issue to advocate, call us. Write us a note. We’re here to help and plan to be for a long time to come.

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