Ben Franklin’s legacy thrives in 2011

This week, Benjamin Franklin turns 305. Franklin may be best known for being one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and for his discoveries in electricity and the sciences, but he was also the first newspaper pioneer.

In the early days of this country, Franklin realized the power a free and unfettered press could have on the citizens of our country to call for responsibility from their leaders and institutions. He wrote scathing letters and editorials, and then founded his own newspaper because he believed that the press could be the strongest asset of those hoping to found a new nation.

Franklin’s contributions to the newspaper business and the industry’s growth during the last three centuries are incalculable. Looking back at his childhood, Franklin found his newspaper calling at the age of 12, when he first learned the business of printing and the power that conveying the truth had on the voting public. By age 17, Franklin was a proficient printer with the skill set to work in any print shop in the colonies.

In 1728, at the age of 22, Franklin took over the 90 subscribers of The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette after editor Samuel Keimer declared bankruptcy. Under Franklin’s leadership, the paper became the Pennsylvania Gazette and began turning a profit.

Franklin believed that knowledge was power and knew the importance of the newspaper. As he famously said, a newspaper in every home” was the “principle support of … morality” in civic life.

But unlike so many of his contemporaries, Franklin understood that the power of a newspaper should not be limited to those with wealth and influence. That is why he used cartoons and pictures so that everyone could understand the news and be better citizens.

Today, the newspaper industry is unquestionably at a crossroads. Do publishers continue to stand still and allow their doors to be permanently shut due to lost revenue and circulation? Or will these editors adapt to new media and technology that will lead to a better-informed and wider audience?

Franklin understood the need for newspapers more than numerous current newspaper editors. Many seem to forget that when a newspaper collapses, there are entire cities that are left in the dust. No longer are residents able to read about their local government and elected officials.

They are forced to rely on the national news, which fails to adequately cover happenings in their hometown. This void in coverage is a serious threat to self-government, and those who are stepping up to cover the news, citizen journalists, are taunted by the legacy media.

The Franklin Center, a national nonprofit journalism organization, took the lessons of Benjamin Franklin and has provided a home to online journalists around the nation.

Fueled by Franklin, who once stated that “I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation,” these online journalists, with the backing of the Franklin Center, are continually on the front lines in restoring the Fourth Estate to its position as a medium of public education, truth, and accountability.

Nonprofit journalism organizations like the Franklin Center are emerging every day. They do the work that the mainstream media is no longer equipped to do and they do it without the awards or fame. They are investigating scandals, covering state government hearings, and asking the questions that the traditional media won’t.

Nonprofit journalism organizations are changing the conversation in politics, the media, and for news consumers around the nation. Although the distant future of journalism remains unclear, one thing for sure is that online nonprofit journalism organizations will continue to serve as a critical asset to readers of today and tomorrow.

The decline of American newspapers might sadden Franklin, but the pursuit of greatness in journalism by nonprofits would without a doubt bring him pride.

Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. For more information, visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org.

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