"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
High school kids used to memorize that line from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In the poem, sailors go mad with thirst under a scorching sun as their cursed vessel sits, day after day, "idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean."
Thirsty in the midst of an ocean: Sounds like our relationship to the ever-increasing torrent of information flooding us from every direction. We can't even begin to absorb it, much less use it effectively.
"Information workers, who comprise about 63 percent of the U.S. workforce, are each bombarded with 1.6 gigabytes of information on average every day through e-mails, reports, blogs, text messages, calls and more," writes Andrea Coombes of The Wall Street Journal. "The average knowledge worker -- from computer programmers and rocket scientists to administrative assistants and accounting clerks -- spends about 25 percent of the day searching for needed information, getting back to work after an interruption and dealing with other effects of information overload."
Drenched in this waterfall of data, we often remain dehydrated when it comes to the knowledge and insights we need to understand God's world and how to respond to it.
Several pastors and mission ministers recently were asked what they read regularly. They cited multiple types of print and digital media, but said they needed more than information.
"I can get information online," one pastor said. "Give me something I can use."
Others in the room agreed. They want handles, context, practical tools they can use to get their families and churches involved in the wider world.
At the very moment when all kinds of media are multiplying, however, one of the best tools available for understanding the onslaught of information is on life support: journalism. For all their biases and shortcomings, good newspapers tell us what is happening, where and when it's happening and, often, why it's happening. They summarize the world and give us options for responding to onrushing events.
With a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other, we can cut through the clutter, get to the heart of the matter, and act.
A vital free press was important enough to the founders of our nation to appear in the Bill of Rights, right up top in the First Amendment, alongside freedom of religion, speech, assembly and petition. Ben Franklin understood its value: Among his many other talents, he was a dedicated newspaperman. Thomas Jefferson understood it as well.
"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter," Jefferson famously said.
Well, Mr. Jefferson, we are facing the real possibility of the former. American newspapers might disappear altogether a few years or decades from now -- not from state oppression, but from public neglect.
You've heard about newspapers large and small closing up shop in one city after another. Perhaps you live in one of those cities. More than 22,000 U.S. newspaper jobs were lost in 2008; another 7,000 employees have been laid off so far this year. One analyst predicts the last newspaper printing press will stop rolling by 2043. Others think the end will come much sooner than that amid a tough economy, generational declines in readership and the demand for free content (including news) online.
Religious media face all of those pressures -- plus the decline of support for denominational institutions. Southern Baptist state newspapers, for instance: They have a long, noble tradition of informing the churches and holding Southern Baptist leaders and institutions accountable to the people. They're still doing both, but they're struggling to survive in the new multimedia environment.
Stop whining, respond new-media proponents. Journalism isn't dying, they assert, it's just being forced to change like everything else. More good news reporting than ever is available online at the touch of a keypad -- sifted and sorted by personal interest. And it's being greatly enriched by "citizen journalism," blogs, social media and other new forms of digital interaction.
True enough, but is Google opening news bureaus overseas? Will Facebook send reporters to cover the next war or natural disaster, or investigate corruption in your local government?
The big Web portals still get most of the news they offer to you from major newspapers and international wire services. If those news organizations cease to exist, where will the Web portals get the news of the world that pops up on your homepage or mobile phone?
If you answered "foreign media," keep in mind that freedom of the press doesn't exist in many places. The majority of the world's population lives in 125 countries where the press is "not free" or only "partly free," according to a study just released by Freedom House, an organization that promotes democracy around the world. "Not free" may also describe the overseas personal blogs and social media you follow.
"Free content" without a free press is worth what you pay for it: not much.
So, I challenge you to buy a newspaper. That's right, buy it -- with cash money from your pocket. Read it. Put it into the hands of a young person in search of knowledge and understanding. Subscribe to a Baptist state paper.
You can't make an impact on your mission field -- which is the world, from your town to the ends of the earth -- unless you understand it.