A simple suggestion to doctors: Subscribe to a newspaper

I recently was speaking to two doctors about newspapers. Neither of them subscribed anymore. “Who has time to read the paper?” they agreed. “And any news you need is free online anyway.”

No big news there, right? Plenty of people — in medicine and otherwise — have made similar decisions since the rise of the Internet in the mid-1990s. But what was striking to me is that these were not millennial residents attached to their smart phones but attendings in the latter parts of their careers.

How the world has changed in so little time. Not long ago, it seemed every responsible adult got papers delivered to their homes each day. In the early 1990s, during my freshman year in college — that first step into independence and adulthood — the daily Washington Posts lined up outside the doors in my dormitory hallway.

I have more than a passing interest in this, I admit. Before pursuing medicine, I worked in the news business for more than a decade, including more than four years as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I know firsthand how the Internet rocked the industry — the plummeting circulation and the advertising dollars dispersed across the World Wide Web, which has led to a drumbeat of layoffs and grim long-term prognoses for the industry. Indeed, these factors played a role in my decision to switch careers.

So, I have a rooting interest in my former industry and for my friends who are still doing important work reporting the news at papers each day.  But I do believe strongly that doctors who do not subscribe to newspapers now should do so. Yes, even in 2016. Yes, even if you only read it online. Why?

To better relate to patients. Many doctors have a knack for this, some not so much. There are many reasons, including an increasing time crunch to see more patients and thus eliminate small talk. Also, many modern doctors are almost like medical mercenaries — they go where they have the best opportunity to practice. This may mean traveling across the country or, in many cases, halfway across the world. This is especially true in residency when doctors end up wherever the algorithms of the Match send them: often to unfamiliar communities.

Newspapers are the most efficient way to find out what matters in your community.  Can you believe what the mayor said? Is it time for the Bears to get a new quarterback? Did you see how much those tickets for Hamilton are going for? Just a few minutes with a newspaper each day can help.

To be engaged in your community. Doctors are seen as leaders in their communities and therefore should be engaged. Whether it’s serving in public office from school boards to the U.S. Senate or just knowing how to vote, being informed is the first step.

One well-seasoned doctor recently told me that he was voting for a certain candidate in this year’s presidential primary because he thought if it would be “funny” if that person ended up as president. So you value competence and professionalism in your field and practice the best evidence-based medicine, but this is your criteria for choosing the leader of the free world?

The so-called “lamestream media” has taken a beating in recent years from certain quarters. But, I believe, much of what we are seeing in this remarkable presidential campaign is the result of too many citizens eschewing newspapers and instead getting their news filtered through hyper-partisan Internet, talk radio and cable outlets geared to incite maximum outrage. Not to mention the inflammatory political memes that too many “friends” post on our Facebook feeds.

Newspaper and wire reports (such as AP and Reuters) are the gold standard of the news business: the straightest shooters, the most truly balanced and thorough reporting available. If newspaper reporters deliberately introduced their politics and biases into the stories they’re writing or editing, they’d be fired. If you want an unbiased account of what’s going on from your city council to Congress, there’s no better place to start.

To support quality journalism. By subscribing to a newspaper, you are supporting the watchdogs of society and even, in some cases, science and medicine. Nobody does investigative reporting better than newspapers – from Watergate to key reporting by a British reporter that helped debunk the link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to the front page story in the Wall Street Journal on lab errors in Pap tests that led to sweeping legislation to change the way laboratories are regulated.

You can’t dig these stories up as a blogger or an Internet aggregator. Good reporting takes time and costs money. Likewise, reporters need to make a living too — they have kids to feed and mortgages to pay.  Unfortunately, as market pressure caused newspapers to contract, many of the eliminated jobs were among specialists, including medical and science reporters.

Still, page through the paper on any given day and you likely will see multiple stories spotlighting the work of doctors and other health care workers. We want this to continue, and we want good people doing it. By subscribing, you are helping fund reporter salaries while making sure the Fourth Estate remains a formidable force.

Granted, I’m a news junkie. I can’t imagine beginning my day without a newspaper sitting on my doorstep. Maybe this makes me a Luddite, but I prefer the real printed paper to a computer or cell phone screen because I think the open pages make it more likely that you’ll read about something beyond your usual interests.

But even if you don’t have time to peruse the paper each day, a subscription is money well-spent. Doctors alone can’t save newspapers, but they ought not be among those contributing to their demise.

John Biemer, a former reporter, is a pathology resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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