The importance of the free press in our democracy

“Quality journalism cannot be created for free”

free press

Photo: John Kaul
Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall (right) was a keynote speaker at Syttende Mai Minnesota with Storting representative Hårek Elevenes (center) at Norway House in Minneapolis, where she also participated in a panel discussion on the importance of the free press moderated by Kathy Tunheim (left).

This year, Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall was a featured keynote speaker at Syttende Mai Minnesota at Norway House in Minneapolis with Storting representative Hårek Elvernes (Conservative Party). This year’s topic was the important role a vibrant free press plays in keeping a democratic society alive and well, both in Norway and the United States.  U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (D) offered introductory remarks, and a discussion between the two keynote speakers was moderated by Kathy Tunheim, CEO + Principal, Tunheim A transcript of Lori Ann’s speech follows:

God kveld—good evening! What an honor to be with you here on the 17th of May.

Tonight, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk with you about the free press in our democratic society, but first, I think I need to say “Happy Birthday.”

Happy Birthday to Norway, which became a nation 210 years ago.

Happy Birthday to Norway House, which has been in existence for 20 years today.

And last but not least, happy birthday to The Norwegian American, North America’s oldest and only Norwegian newspaper and Norway House’s official publication, a publication that has been in existence for 135 years since May 17, 1889.

As many of you know, I have served as editor-in-chief of our newspaper for several years now. This has also been an honor and a pleasure for me—and a great challenge.

The newspaper business has never been an easy one. It is fast-moving and carries the responsibility of bringing readers news and information that is both accurate and pertinent to their lives.

Add to that the challenge that the world of media is changing rapidly with the internet and social media. Many newspapers simply do not make it in today’s competitive environment. Across the country, we are losing newspapers at an alarmingly rapid pace, many of them local community publications. The situation is so serious, that bills have been brought forth in Congress to protect them.

The situation is better in Norway, but there, too, there are signs of distress. Major publications and been lost, and recently, more Norwegians have reported that they are now getting their news from Facebook, although a recent study indicates that it is trending downward.

Facebook—you have to love it and hate it.

Last fall, I was at a Nordic fair to represent the newspaper and sell subscriptions. 

One of my prospective customers flippantly said to me, “What do I need you for? I’ve got my Facebook and YouTube for free” and he laughed.

I said to him, “Oh dear, this is no joke—you really do need us! 

“Our newspaper is carefully curated to remain relevant to our audience, it is produced by subject matter experts, and is carefully checked for facts and overall quality. There really is nothing else like it!”

The conversation continued for a while. I had to admit that I, too, use Facebook and other social media to promote the business and that I enjoy it personally to keep in touch with friends and relatives. I also glean information about what is going on in the Norwegian-American community—but I do not rely on Facebook or another social media as a news source. 

Yes, Facebook is free, but it comes at a price. It relies on the content it shares from other publications. Sometimes those publications gain new readers and subscribers through click-throughs, but sadly, more seldom than often.  We have even seen Facebook users complain that they cannot read The Norwegian American for free after their one click-through.

No, quality journalism cannot be created for free. 

There are operational costs (writers and other staff and a myriad of tools), printing and distribution costs, marketing costs—all the normal costs of doing business—many, many hours of work for each issue.

Unlike much of social media, we are in the business of reporting real news as opposed to fake news. The oxymoron of “alternate facts” presents a real danger to our society, and we work hard to guard against it.

Social media, on the other hand, relies on mysterious algorithms designed to target certain users and feed them with what they want to hear in their echo chambers. There is no fact-checking. There is no quality control. 

One of our engaged readers once suggested that we need a “national truth commission” to monitor our news—and that notion scared me, too. Whose truth? 

On some level, this does exist with our news wires and the efforts of investigative journalists on the ground to report the news and there are organizations devoted to checking the facts—we recently reported on a Norwegian group called faktisk.no—but monitoring and censoring the free press presents yet a new danger in a society where freedom of speech lies as one of its most important foundations.

Of course, verification of the facts matters, but there is another very important factor in the equation: education. And what better way to educate oneself than by reading a quality publication?  

We need to ensure that critical thinking skills are part of our school curricula and that as adults we continue to read as a means of keeping ourselves informed and in touch with what is happening in our society today—to guard it and to preserve it.

I’ve always said each issue of The Norwegian American is a small miracle. We are so few people working on the newspaper, and we are underfunded in an economic environment where our costs are constantly increasing. We rely heavily on the idealism of our contributors, highly qualified professionals, who generously give of their time and talents. 

We also have subscribers who also provide monetary support beyond the annual subscription plans, and then there is the entire Norwegian community both on this side of the Atlantic and in Norway that is always willing to step up to the plate. 

Over the past years, I have interviewed some of the most famous Norwegians in the world, which is no small matter. I should add that almost no one ever says no to us.

But yes, like all newspapers, we have a big challenge ahead of us: we need to increase and enhance our digital presence to attract younger readers; we need to increase our number of paid subscribers; we need to find new ways to raise additional revenue to sustain our operations; and finally, we need to take this 135-year-old newspaper into a new generation of leadership. 

Recently, we have been looking for new ways to reach out to the community in our partnership with Norway House. You can enjoy one of these projects with our “Democracy Center,” an exhibit at the Joan + Walter Mondale Galleri, dedicated this morning.

The exhibit was designed to make the basic fundaments of the Norwegian and U.S. constitutions accessible to schoolchildren and their families, with a strong outreach into the surrounding local community. “Democracy begins in our own neighborhood,” is one of our slogans—and I tonight I would like to add, “Democracy begins with your own newspaper.”

Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, has said: “Newspapers are not dying, we are changing, innovating, and growing the ways to distribute our reporting and storytelling.”

It’s a worthwhile ambition— and I ask you to join on us on this journey. If you aren’t already a subscriber, I urge you to pick up a copy here at Norway House or check us out online. 

We can’t do this without you—and please remember, our whole reason of being is to serve you and the greater Norwegian-American community.

Thank you, and gratulerer med dagen!

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.