A drawing of the dodo bird.

Remember the ‘dodo tree …’

The last dodo died near the end of 18th century. The demise of the dodo was caused by man. Nobody mourned the big clumsy bird at the time, because it appeared that it didn’t have anything much to contribute to pay for its existence. However, time was to prove that like so many other facets of life on earth, the dodo didn’t die alone.

There was a valuable hardwood tree growing on the island of Mauritius, until it stopped appearing from the early 1800s. It took some time to establish what caused the wipeout of this tree – the name of which I can’t remember (see last week’s YCBS!). Then a scientist discovered the astonishing truth.

The dodo ate the seed of the tree. It took the dodo’s strong gizzard to crush the outer shell of the seed, before it passed through its body and germinated. This lost hardwood tree came to be known as ‘the dodo tree.’ (An easy name to remember!)

Last Tuesday morning I opened my ‘Westmeath Examiner’ and proceeded with the usual flick-through to find out what was the week’s most interesting piece of news. What drew my initial attention were the profiles of several candidates putting themselves forward for the local elections in June.

I read the profiles of all those hopefuls intending to run. The pages consisted of fair and unbiased reporting; irrespective of political party or what cause the candidate stood for.

There will be lots more such coverage between local, EU, and general election within the next year. This is democracy working at its best – a democracy which is under threat from barefaced lies, far-right and far-left conspiracy theorists… and all enabled through social media and the Internet in general. This misinformation scourge is the greatest threat to the world at this time.

I thought of what the candidates will have to contend with – having once dipped my toe in that water myself. I thought too of what it may be like for future candidates… and I thought of ‘The Dodo Tree.’

Newspapers are the bedrock of democracy. It is no exaggeration to state that if newspapers go, democracy will die too. Already there are dangerous social issues across the globe, where the vacuum left by the death of a local newspaper is being filled with fake news, ‘alternative facts’ and misinformation. The opposite of this is a survey which shows that the turnout for elections is much higher wherever there is a strong local newspaper.

Swathes of deprived and working-class areas in America have become so far removed from reality, due to the easy sowing of false, far right, propaganda on social media since their local papers folded.

Newspapers are dying in Britain. There are fewer papers in circulation now than at any time since the days of the dodo. The once proud, ‘Birmingham Post’, loyally serving its region for 170 years, is down to a circulation figure of 844 per issue at the last audit.

This is not to imply that any of our own local papers are in critical trouble. We have always been great newspaper readers in Ireland. But, nationally, it is reckoned that the industry has shed half its workforce over the past decade. It is hard now to believe that I remember when the ‘Examiner’ employed five proof-readers.

With the local papers, local journalism is crucial for the health of democracy. Accurate reports are carried on courts, councils, crime and public services. Our provincial papers hold regional bodies to account, and local journalism encourages civic participation.

Charitable causes are highlighted, local business encouraged and native achievements applauded. There is no greater fosterer of pride of place in our own county, than ‘the local rag!’

There is ample evidence out there that people do value there local paper – even as far a ‘fondness’ for their favourite newspaper. Despite this, it is doubtful if readers would be prepared to pay the extra it really needs to make a lot of papers sustainable. Again, the ‘enemy’ is the internet – and of course the corresponding loss of advertising revenue.

But all is not yet lost, some papers, like this one, are still doing OK. It is up to all of us citizens to realise the importance of our paper- and if not going the extra mile, at least go the extra inch to keep it alive. I don’t preach any of this because I write…. I say it because I read.

We cannot allow the newspaper to go the way of the dodo. Democracy is joined to your paper at the hip. Remember the ‘dodo tree…!’

Don’t Forget

Democracy, like love, can survive almost any attack – except neglect and indifference.