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 once told me that when I went to make a speech, 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 Haley, the power of stories came to him when he 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.
(Editor’s Note: In observance of National Newspaper Week, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and former state governor, has written and submitted this guest “Viewpoint” to the Cleveland Daily Banner.)