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All Points West: The mind is a terrible thing to waste
January 22, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
Not too long ago when I taught high school English, one of the lessons I pounded into my kids’ heads was to become critical thinkers. Short of sounding like the fictitious FBI Agent Fox Mulder from the X-Files, I challenged them to question everything. “The truth is out there, somewhere.”

Maybe. I’d like to know where, exactly. Which leads me to issue this warning about information: Buyer (readers) beware. We take in a lot of information by reading. In the Age of Information, you can’t be too careful about what you read or hear, and how you process the information. Take actor Sean Penn’s reporting on the drug wars for Rolling Stone in an article titled “El Chapo Speaks.” There are innumerable points of view, but did we miss the boat?

Let’s talk numbers. Potential buyers – or to use the more socially acceptable term – consumers in Nebraska make up about 1,891,083 (est.) according to the latest count by the United States Internet Usage and Population statistics website. By comparison, the latest count by the U.S. Census of 1,881,503, doesn’t present a wide enough gap to make a difference. Yet, allow this disclaimer: One person’s opinion matters, and can make a difference in a close election.

The Internet Usage website also reports Nebraska has 1,455,917 Internet users or 80.2 percent of the population as of June, coincidentally, the month I arrived here in Gering. Rounded down, a little less than half of us check Facebook or other social media outlets. We also post thousands of baby photos and opinions about a range of thought-provoking social issues.

About 90.5 percent of Nebraskans are high school graduates, while about 28.5 percent have a bachelor’s degree or better. Of this more formally educated segment, nearly 90 percent read a newspaper or some sort of print publication every day, perhaps suggesting a more discerning readership, and a part of our society that wonders more frequently about a way forward.

Nationally, according to Pew Research Center, only 29 percent now say they read a newspaper, with 23 percent reading a print newspaper. Over the past decade, the percentage reading a print newspaper the previous day has fallen by 18 points (from 41 percent to 23 percent). Somewhat more (38 percent say they regularly read a daily newspaper, although this percentage also has declined, from 54 percent in 2004. Figures for newspaper readership may not include some people who read newspaper content on such websites as Google News or Yahoo News.

Substantial percentages of the regular readers of leading (big city) newspapers now read them digitally. Currently, 55 percent of regular New York Times readers say they read the paper mostly on a computer or mobile device, as do 48 percent of regular USA Today and 44 percent of Wall Street Journal readers.

Despite fewer readers actually handling a newspaper, newspapers are not dinosaurs heading toward extinction. Nor are the online versions fully succumbing to the self-made platform of bloggers or personal websites, which seemingly crowd legitimate news sources, making it more difficult for average Joes and Janes like us to pick out valuable tidbits. The reams of online Matrix-like text presents the proverbial needle in a stack of haystacks. Is there too much bad (unsupported and imbalanced) information? Conspiracy theorists would blame our government for the dumbing down of society and the relentless pursuit of creating sheep.

Beware this information free fall, and don’t get trapped in a maze. Take into account the result of this upheaval of information, and how it’s being delivered. Put on your critical thinking cap and ask, who is delivering the kind of news you want to read?

Also, consider our population is growing, not declining. However, it is also fragmenting along special interests. The people of Gering most likely want to read about news which affects them most, things that happen in Gering, and not about social unrest in Bangladesh.

Along those lines, rural journalism is surviving, even thriving, in the West and across the United States, in an era of precipitous decline for major metro newspapers, according to a story by Geoff McGhee entitled “Rural Newspaper Doing Better than their City Counterparts.” He wrote: In the United States, some 7,500 community newspapers – papers with under 30,000 in circulation – still hit the streets, front porches, and mailboxes at least once a week.

A 2010 survey conducted by the University of Missouri at Columbia for the National Newspaper Association, produced some enviable statistics: More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week. A full 94 percent said that they paid for their papers. Seven years ago, the Gering Citizen opened its doors, one day after the Rocky Mountain News folded. A more stable market for weekly community news developed, and in recent months, a rising subscription rate.

If you are a regular on the Internet, or more specifically social media, and statistics say you are, you draw your information consistently from Internet sources, specifically Facebook, Twitter and Instagram among others, which may or may not compliment the news you get from local publications. Nor, may a lot of it be entirely accurate. The Gering Citizen offers both print and electronic editions. Conveniently, you can tap into this information at any time. What makes us go? Loyal readers.

Suffice it to say, information holds value. Having multiple outlets is not a bad idea, and having these kinds of choices is uniquely American.

Now, to explain the challenges of the seller: In this free market society, we run a business, and just like any business, we depend on sales. In our line of work, we do our best to provide fair, accurate, and thorough coverage. The 15th century poet John Lydgate said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

Not surprisingly, Nebraska is staunchly conservative, though conservative might be a relative term and might apply to the hat, shoes and overcoat you wear – your general appearance. It might also apply to your general outlook – how you express yourself in thought and deed, and how your beliefs guide how you live.

In the 1800s, when Nebraska was taking shape, state lines were drawn somewhat on personal interests when you compare the residents of Colorado and Nebraska. The gold miners went south. The homesteaders stayed on the plains to farm. These days, Colorado sells recreational marijuana, tapping into a lucrative industry and reporting a budget surplus, while Nebraska plods ahead, relatively unchanged and dealing with a Spartan budget.

Take Gering for example, 35 years ago, when I was but a wee lad growing up here, the population was between 5,000 and 6,000. These days, the green sign on the edge of town says we have more than 8,000 folks this side of the North Platte, while Colorado has become a boom state. Not unlike our ancestors, we rely heavily on agriculture, transportation (railroad and trucking), manufacturing, and retail. Yet, as residents, electronic access gives the capacity to talk to more people than farmers, railroaders, truckers and business owners. We are global.

The point is, interests aside, we share information at a faster rate. Therein lies the rub.

In the news business, we understand that by nature, folks want to hear from people who look and sound like them. Without being critical about what our readers like. I pose this question: What is in Nebraska’s best interest? What would unite us, and not divide us?

In my experience, since I have friends who are both staunchly conservative and diehard liberal, and keep in mind the labels fit loosely, I have seen that beliefs can at times rouse contentious healthy debate, probably not unlike discussions between our lawmakers.
Interestingly, conservatives and liberals often form their opinions with information from the same news sources. Now add a layer of typos, grammar mistakes, vague and misused language, misinterpreted statements, which cause regular confusion and misunderstandings. In other words, who is minding the store? At the Citizen, we do our best to check facts and deliver clean and understandable readable and comprehensible stories.

We will continue to do our job. The rest is up to you.
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