A visit by newspaper is an education

If I were to rank in order the states I'd be interested in visiting, North Dakota would be close to the bottom of the list.

I went there anyway, in a manner of speaking. After my visit I know a lot more about the people of North Dakota than I ever would have otherwise their culture, their economy, their issues, their concerns, their trials and tribulations.

My visit was not physical. Nor was it by "virtual reality" or cyberspace.

I went to North Dakota by spending lots of hours reading some of the best work of the last year in the state's leading newspapers. With other Daily Journal and Mississippi editors I helped judge the North Dakota Newspaper Association's statewide awards competition. They will in turn judge ours.

I've done this many times before, but usually with a state I knew a lot more about. In this case I had to rely on the newspapers themselves to help orient me to what life in that far-off, out-of-the-mind state is like. And they succeeded in providing me with that education.

What struck me most is that however different our circumstances seem, most of us in this country are wrestling with essentially the same concerns.

How do we best raise, educate and nurture our children? What can we do to make our schools better? How can we ensure that the jobs and opportunities are in place to keep the next generation from having to leave? What can we do to revitalize our communities? How do we preserve the best of the old culture while not living in the past?

In Mississippi we still think of our state as rural. We've got nothing on North Dakota. Mississippi has 2.8 million people in 47,716 square miles, North Dakota 640,000 in 70,655. Now that's rural.

We're even more different in many ways. The African American population is virtually non-existent in North Dakota. Native Americans are the biggest minority.

It's cold there really cold. Blizzards and temperatures are close to the harshest you can find in the United States. Terrible flooding in recent years devastated some of their towns. Mississippi has an image problem, but the weather isn't a part of it. The weather is their image problem, along with the perception that as family farms have died out, opportunity is disappearing in North Dakota.

And yet through those newspaper pages emerged a portrait of a determined people whose uprooted rural roots, economic hardships and regular battles with nature hadn't diminished their spirit and may in fact have shaped and refined it.

I read about schools and universities in need of better funding, rural health care concerns, housing issues, downtown redevelopments, of people trying to bounce back from natural disasters, and even of racially-tinged heritage issues: should the University of North Dakota athletic teams continue to be called the Sioux? It's not the state flag, but it's kin to it.

I also read about middle schoolers confronting those awful years of early adolescence, of retired citizens doing wonderful acts of community service, of courageous fights against cancer, of the same plagues of drugs, violence and abuse that confront every single state in the union, whether it has 640,000 people in the whole state or that many in a single suburb.

Substitute a few names and places and much of what I read could have happened or be happening anywhere, including Mississippi.

But this was North Dakota, and though the universality was there, the particularity of place and time came through clearly. And it occurred to me that these were good newspapers precisely because they were able to capture the particular in their communities and state, to help people better understand their own unique identity. I was moved to hope that in North Dakota they could say the same after reading ours and other Mississippi newspapers.

As I wrote here recently, newspapers are, or should be, in the business of building community. A big part of that is defining just who and what make up the special character of a particular place. That is done through holding up a mirror so that a community, or region, or state, can see itself more clearly.

A mirror doesn't always flatter, of course. And it's a reflection, not reality. But without it, we'd know a lot less about ourselves.

Maybe it's pretentious to believe that newspapers have that capacity. But I know this: If newspapers don't do it, there are very few other alternatives up to the task.

Fargo, Grand Falls, Bismarck and other smaller towns and hamlets in a state far away from Mississippi were only seldom-heard names to me until recently. Now I've seen their reflections in a mirror, and they have taken on an identity in my mind.

Their newspapers did that for me. I can imagine that they are doing much more for the folks who actually live there, and I can hope that ours will, in some fashion, manage to do the same.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. His e-mail address is lloyd.gray@djournal.com

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