Isolation, whether regional or local, is a natural consequence of rurality and my "Back Then" world was certainly rural. However, two major federal programs were already opening it up for information and opportunity. These were rural mail delivery (aka rural free delivery) and rural electrification (aka REA or Rural Electrification Administration).
Daily mail delivery — except on Sunday, of course — made for easy communication with family, friends and business correspondents. Mail order catalogs made it possible for people who lived in the "backwoods" to shop for hitherto undreamed of things that were useful and/or desirable.
Mail order commerce deserves more than passing mention. Sears Roebuck was the dominant force, followed by Montgomery Ward, then lesser companies. With its operations based in Atlanta with its many railroads and early air terminal, Sears Roebuck turned around orders quickly, sometimes within three days. There were two big catalogs — spring & summer and fall & winter — and a Christmas special greatly favored by children. Anyone who pays attention to national news knows that Sears (Roebuck long gone from the name) is now in serious financial distress. Its expansion into brick and mortar stores worked well for decades, but might well be fatal as buyers flock to Amazon and other e-commerce companies. It is a bit of an irony that e-commerce is a modern version of Sears' mail order business. Maybe it is just nostalgia, but I hate to see it go.
Rural mail carriers also delivered newspapers. Although local news might not be timely by the time weekly papers reached their readers, they were indispensable for their legal announcements and valued for keeping up with folks nearby.
Many rural people were not comfortable in their isolation. Wanting to know more about the wider world, they subscribed to a daily newspaper, which was also delivered by "the mailman," except on Sundays, of course. My paternal grandfather, Drewry W. Branch, subscribed to a three-days-a-week edition of the Atlanta Constitution. Mother's father, Rudy Williams, who was almost a generation younger, eagerly awaited the arrival of the Savannah Morning News at the hands of Ben L. Collins each day about 1 p.m. If Rufus Hall delivered nothing else to my parents' mailbox, he always brought the Savannah Morning News.
The paper was important to them. During World War II when one of their sons and various nephews were in harm's way, my maternal grandparents waited on the porch for the coming of the mail carrier. News reports were heavily censored and gave few details about what was happening in the war but they grasped for any bit of useful information.
Now daily newspapers are in danger, not because they are failing in their mission, but because electronic communication has lured away subscribers and therefore advertising revenue. Well, why is it a problem if people get their news free from other sources? The first answer is reliability.
Newspapers have to stand behind their content. It is concrete, there in black and white for everyone to see. It is constrained by law. Papers can be sued for libel. I remember well my course on law and ethics in journalism under Professor Tyus Butler at the University of Georgia. Beyond simple law, there are the constraints of a known code of ethics.
There is no filter of law, ethics, accountability and even identity in any of the well-used forms of electronic communication. Tweets, twitters, e-mails, etc., can be written and transmitted by anyone and under false names. If it suits my fancy, I can share to the rest of the world anything no matter how grossly inaccurate and evil it might be. Will people believe lies? Yes, of course.
This nation's Founding Fathers sometimes found themselves at odds with some newspapers, but all insisted on the necessity of a free press for democracy.
Beyond the role of newspapers in maintaining the integrity of the nation, there is another important need. How else will we know about important local developments? What about new businesses coming to our town or region? How will we be reminded of the Peanut Festival in Brooklet or the Turpentine Festival in Portal? How will we learn about the deaths and funerals of friends and neighbors? Multiply the Herald by scores of such papers across the land. Can we afford to lose these tendons that bind together communities when so many connections have already been lost?
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.