Here's Something: Clink your glass, speak your piece

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I believe in the power of newspapers.

Since you’re holding this newspaper in your hands or reading this column on the web, I know you do as well. Thank you. The people who work hard to bring you this publication every week appreciate your time and attention.

During this time of heavy criticism of the media, people are realizing more than ever that independent and unbiased news is vital to the general health of a community. Look no further than the recent American election, or the Syrian crisis, as proof of the importance of factual news. But while it’s impossible to know if we’re getting the whole story from any particular news outlet, the more sources we enlist, the fuller a picture we get.

To find the most thorough information and range of viewpoints, I turn to newspapers first. Watching TV news is fine, but once that broadcast has wrapped, there’s no second chance to hear the information. Not so with a newspaper.

You can reread a story, study a chart or consider a photograph until it makes a lasting impression. Or you can save the article to read later, share it with someone, or preserve it for posterity. Years from now I’ll still have the youth soccer roundups from my hometown newspaper that my grandmother lovingly cut out for me. You can’t say that for TV news. Sure, TV cameras can catch stunning live video, but a good photographer can capture the essence of a story in one or two stills. The boy in the Aleppo ambulance is a recent example.

I admit I’m a little biased when it comes to news and opinion in the written form. I worked for Current Publishing for a decade and a half until last spring, when a yearning to drive Maine’s scenic roads in a delivery truck superseded my willingness to sit at a desk staring at a computer every day. I learned much, however, from my days writing and editing local news in greater Portland, and my fond memories of the work will never fade.

Hence my excitement this week to begin an ongoing column for The Forecaster family of newspapers, which combined with Current Publishing about a year ago.

In addition to being a proud former newspaperman, I’m a proud conservative. But I’m hoping this column will be more than just a weekly conservative take on the news of the day. As the column’s title alludes, I hope to humbly offer up something for readers to think about for a few minutes during their busy week.

Since topics will vary widely, “Here’s Something” seemed a fitting umbrella.

It was a phrase my grandmother – the same grandmother who saved my soccer stats – would utter at holiday dinners. She’d clink a butter knife on her water glass and say “Here’s something,” and then my family would quiet down and let her talk without fear of interruption. When she was done, we’d comment on whatever she said.

Same with this column (except for the dramatic, and potentially dangerous, wielding of the butter knife). I’ll give my opinion, an initial volley or salvo if you will, and hope that others respond with ideas – in the form of a letter to the editor – of their own.

This form of community conversation taking place on a newspaper’s Opinion page is certainly nothing new, but I think in recent years the urge to write letters to a newspaper has waned with the growth of new media like Facebook and Twitter. What I like about an Opinion page is that it is open to all and visible to all. Not so with social media, which require you to “follow” or “friend.”

I wonder if the community truly grasps what it has in an Opinion page. Reporters and editors run the show when it comes to the news sections, but readers can generally say what they want on the Opinion page. They can speak truth to power. They can criticize. They can support. And everyone can see it. All they have to do is pick up a paper.

I’ve heard people say a sign of a healthy community is how many people participate in town events such as high school games, elections, chamber of commerce events or school plays. I’d add to that list the number of letters submitted to the local paper. As an editor, I pleaded with people to share their views in a letter, in order to foster that all-important community conversation. I believe only by reading different views will we each achieve a fuller understanding of the world and see outside our own.

We expect reporters and editors to be bold when reporting the news, but a truly successful publication requires an equally brave response from readers. This new year, let’s follow the example my grandmother set and boldly clink our water glasses and speak our piece.

Just be careful when you’re waving that butter knife.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.