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Making a difference: For newspapers, the bottom line is the readers

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image Readers stepped up to help when the story of an increasingly unsightly DAV van came out. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Newspapers don't change lives, people do.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
 
Times have been tough for many newspapers, including some in the Tampa Bay area. What appears to be afflicting printed news is the same that afflicts most every medium today. No one has to wait for hard news to be delivered to their doorstep anymore. A nation that would pore over an evening newspaper or tune in to Walter Cronkite and later, Tom Brokaw, for the up-to-the-minute news of the day, now only has to click on their “Favorites” in a web browser to find out what is happening almost anywhere in the world at any time of the day or night. For those who didn’t care for hard news, just over two decades ago, millions of Americans would stay up late to hear Johnny Carson’s humorous take on the news of the day during his nightly monologue.

Cronkite and Carson are gone. Those days are gone. News is available in real-time and night show monologues are available the next morning on YouTube. The world has changed — nowhere more demonstrably than in printed news. In response, many newspapers have cut their budgets and their staffs, providing less while often expecting more.

Arguably, that strategy is a fallacy. Arguably, that potentially underestimates and undervalues the readers of newspapers. While the content and outlook of printed newspapers must change in order for the institution to survive, the fact remains that people still read; people still care about what is happening in their neighborhoods, their communities and in the world. The Associated Press can provide the news, but it isn’t capable of providing the local view and impact of that news. Only local newspapers and other local media are capable of delivering information and even entertainment in a way that is most relevant to you.

And, often forgotten in the cutbacks and layoffs is that it is you, the reader, that matters most. The word “medium” is just that — newspapers are nothing more than a conveyance; in and of themselves, the writers, the editors, the printed pages don’t make a difference — it is always the readers that make things happen.

The economy is on a rebound, or so it is said. But if that is a fact, the rebound is uneven at best, and there are those in our communities and neighborhoods who are still going hungry in the world’s wealthiest nation. “The demand for food is greater than the supply,” said one director of an area food bank recently.

Have a Heart Caring Castle

The Observer News journalist Kevin Brady wrote a series of six articles, providing in-depth coverage of the Have A Heart Caring Castle community food drive, and readers responded, having an enormous impact on those who would otherwise go hungry. The Beth-El Farmworker Ministry food bank alone serves nearly 8,000 people every month. The need for help is staggering.

“I’d love to offer up the Have a Heart Caring Castle for a journalism award, if the opportunity would present itself,” said Rosie Korfant of the JSA Medical Group, the primary sponsor of the food drive. 

“Random acts of kindness were kindled from the goodwill efforts of your readers,” Korfant said. “For instance, a reader was in the grocery store checking out a large bag of groceries, explaining to the cashier that the goods were for the Have a Heart Caring Castle campaign. A customer in line directly behind your reader asked if she could pay for the groceries.”

And there was more…

“One of the readers who had been following the weekly stories showed up at JSA right at the deadline hour — at 3:55 — with over 300 pounds of groceries to add to the already significant amount of goods collected,” Korfant said. “She was so overjoyed at not being left out that she almost wept right in my office. Further, two ladies brought several bags of groceries even after the drive had concluded, which we promptly dispatched.”

And with the much-needed food came a need to store it. Readers also answered that call.

“Beth-El Mission told me that due to the publicity in the newspaper, they were given a new, much-needed freezer,” Korfant exclaimed.

Korfant went on to tell of a young man who had read the articles and was then moved to help an elderly blind man walk to a nearby food pantry.

Conveying the story — telling of the hard work of others — is something that will hopefully help to inspire a lasting impact among readers and the community.

“The Pastor of Creative Arts at Life Church food pantry in Riverview told me, while picking up their share of the food, that this was such a blessing because they can hardly keep up with the demand at their site,” Korfant said. “And all the newspaper publicity really helped draw attention to the need.” 

On February 19, 2014, this newspaper ran a story about a van used to shuttle disabled and elderly veterans to the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa. The van, several years old, ran well but had become unsightly. Once resplendent with the American colors, the Florida sun had caused those colors to fade and peel away. The van was also in need of minor modifications to allow elderly veterans, men and women still strong of mind and will, the ability to enter the van with dignity and without requiring assistance.

There were no YouTube videos of cute kittens or unusual dog tricks associated with the story. There were no photos of scantily clad women attached to the article. Despite that, people in South Hillsborough read the article and stood up to help. As a result of the story, $4,500 was donated to refurbish the van, and four people volunteered to become much-needed new drivers. Businesses and individuals offered to help both to either paint the van or to help purchase a new one. The response was so significant that the Disabled American Veterans, the nonprofit organization that owns the van, is hoping there is enough momentum to purchase a new van next year.

John McQuaid of the DAV was stunned by and grateful for the response from the readers. “We are here for service,” he said quietly, perhaps not quite knowing how to respond to those who stepped up to serve his organization.

The DAV serves those who were willing to give all for the nation, and the readers of the newspaper went far beyond the mere words “We support our troops.” The newspaper simply relayed the story; it was you, the readers, who made the difference.

McQuaid, while immensely grateful, is hoping the printed word will remain in sight for a while longer yet.

“If we can get another driver or two, that would really help,” he said hopefully.

Headlines and news stories often imply the United States is falling behind in academic pursuits such as engineering and the sciences. If that is indeed the case, it doesn’t appear to be the result of a lack of interest — at least not at Lennard High School in Ruskin.

Science teacher Jim Reve, who became a teacher after retiring from Lockheed Martin, where, among other things, he worked on the Cassini space project, began a robotics club at the school. Since the club was an extracurricular activity, there was no money for it in the Hillsborough County Schools budget.

The club began with odd bits of PVC pipe, a handful of tools and some castoff wire and small motors. Before long, however, Reve found that he had to turn students away — more students were interested in joining the after-school club than there were materials for them to use. Despite their lack of resources, the club quickly showed its promise by winning two awards at an academic competition.

And then, after a February article, newspaper readers stepped in to help. The club received financial assistance as well as much needed supplies — enough to allow more students to join. The generosity of those who read the story likely had an impact that went even beyond the material donations — readers almost certainly inspired confidence. The club, despite being relatively new and still underfunded compared to those at some high schools and colleges, has continued to win awards. For the 2014 school year, the club now has two first-place wins, three second-place wins and a fourth-place win in four events.

“I would have to say that, without your readers, none of what we have been able to do this year with the robotics club would have been possible,” Reve said.  “We needed raw material as much as we needed money, and your readers came through with both. I would like to give a very heartfelt ‘Thank you’ from all of us here at Dr. Lennard High School Robotics Club!”

Someday it is possible, perhaps likely, that the young people in the club will find answers to immense questions and problems — from safe, cost-effective and efficient bridges to searching the solar system, galaxy and the universe for ideas to enhance life on Earth — and it will be a community that helped them in their first steps to find those answers.

The club’s next event, a NASA Egglander competition, will be held in Melbourne, Fla., on May 4. It will also be the last event of the school year.

The above is merely from the past two months. There is so much more, from a historic cemetery in need of attention to the plight of homeless veterans to a local production attempting to bring family-friendly programming back to television, in which the newspaper conveyed the story and the readers stepped up to make a difference, to help those in need or simply to invest in a more promising future.

Newspapers as they are generally known today have been published for more than four centuries. The first American newspaper was published in 1690. Newspapers were not then and are not today irrelevant — the need for curated information is greater than ever. But in the news of newspaper layoffs and poor finances seeking a cratered bottom line, what is too often unsaid is that the true bottom line is with those who read the papers — and then act upon what they have learned from them. Newspapers don’t change lives, people do. For a newspaper, it is a matter of trust, integrity and faith, but it is always the readers who matter the most.

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