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Our Opinion: Free, independent press is a uniquely American concept

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Religion, speech, press, assembly, petition.

If you can recite that list from memory, you’re ahead of 96% of American adults, according to the Freedom Forum Institute’s 2019 State of the First Amendment survey.

Just 4% of those polled could identify the right to petition government for redress of grievances as one of the five First Amendment freedoms. The right to peaceably assemble registered 12% awareness, followed by freedom of the press at 22%, freedom of religion at 29% and freedom of speech at 64%.

This newspaper you’re reading — whether you’re holding the print edition or seeing these words on your smartphone, tablet or laptop or desktop computer — is inextricably linked with the First Amendment and its 45 words, five freedoms and outsize impact on American life.

National Newspaper Week began Sunday and continues through Saturday. The 79th annual observance pays homage to the amendment that makes independent journalism possible in the United States. This year’s theme is “Think First: Know Your Five Freedoms.”

A constitutional guarantee of press freedom is a uniquely American concept. Many nations throughout the world have only state-controlled media where government propaganda passes for news.

Even in other Western democracies, the right to speak, write and publish is diluted. Great Britain’s libel law requires that coverage of Parliament and judiciary proceedings must be “fair and accurate” — as government officials define it — in order for journalists to invoke qualified privilege from lawsuits. Some European nations censor and punish criticism of religion under their hate speech laws.

Few rights are absolute, and even the First Amendment has some limits. But our foundational right to freedom of the press makes our nation the envy of journalists and thinkers throughout the world. Because newsgathering is constitutionally protected, federal, state and local governments can’t impose occupational licensing restrictions on reporters, while other professions are highly regulated.

In an age where trusted news matters, local newspapers are more important than ever. More than three-quarters of people agree that the spread of fake news and misinformation is a serious threat to our democracy, according to the State of the First Amendment Survey, and 72% agree it’s important for the news media to act as a government watchdog.

Our mission is vital, but a changing business climate poses challenges to our industry’s long-term survival. More than 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed their doors since 2004, according to research compiled by Penelope Muse Abernathy at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The Great Recession brought a nationwide reduction in print advertising. Circulation has dwindled as more people grow accustomed to getting their news online. And newspapers have been slow to adapt their business models from print to digital, meaning many local news outlets with robust websites struggle to translate their tens of thousands of online readers into the revenue that pays reporters to cover high school football games and city council meetings.

We’re committed to forging a sustainable path forward. That’s why the ownership of this newspaper helped create Restoration NewsMedia, a joint venture of The Wilson Times and The Daily Record of Dunn. North Carolina’s last two family-owned dailies joined forces to restore community newspapers and preserve the journalism that makes them valuable.

Restoration NewsMedia is part of a yearlong program, the UNC Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative, that will help our newspapers adapt to shifts in technology and reader and advertiser habits. We’re committed to sticking around for the long haul, and we need your feedback and support as we implement changes in the next year and beyond.

Newspapers are a unique vehicle for the exercise of Americans’ five First Amendment freedoms. We embody the free press. We practice free speech and enable you to do the same by writing letters to the editor. Our coverage of local government helps you know when it’s necessary to hold peaceful assemblies and petition city, county, state and federal officials. And our coverage of religion allows you to attend services at the congregation of your choice and worship in your own way.

Consider taking some time this week to reflect on your First Amendment freedoms and the value of a free press in society. Express yourself — it’s your American right.

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