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June 5, 2017

You may be wondering what the heck happened to your opinion page.

It disappeared.

But just for today. It’ll be back tomorrow.

The rest of The Billings Gazette disappeared today at the Newseum, along with 1,200 other newspapers which submit a copy of their paper daily at the Washington, D.C. museum. The Newseum is a shrine to the freedom of the press and America’s First Amendment. Even for people whose fingers have never been dirtied by the still-drying ink of a newspaper, it’s a must-see.

Every day, visitors can go through and look at the front pages from more than 1,000 daily newspapers. Big, small, by state, or by alphabetical order, they can see the work of community journalism.

Not today.

Today, every front page there has been blacked out. In its place, the hashtag #WithoutNews.

It’s a subtle and powerful reminder that without the work of journalists and local community journalism, our information channels go dark. And as the recently adopted mantra of The Washington Post says, “Democracy Dies In Darkness.”

On one hand, this message is undoubtedly self-serving. Sure, you’d expect us to give a spirited defense of newspapers, community journalism and the First Amendment.

On the other, the work that happens automatically on these pages — things like letters to the editor being printed, editorials, news, photos, scores, weather, profiles, crosswords, comics, world news, columnists, recipes, classified advertising, health news, celebrity birthdays, photos of cute kids, photos of not-so-cute kids — all of it — isn’t just as automatic as you may think.

Oftentimes, we’re labeled as conspiracy mongers, promoting some liberal California agenda. The truth is so much less sexy, though. We’re just a bunch of taxpaying residents, many of whom are native Montanans.

We truly love this place just as much as anyone. We get that it’s a privilege to practice a Constitutionally-protected job every day we go to work at a free press.

We also know that there are other countries where a career in journalism can mean death, and asking questions can get more than just a body slam. We are lucky to not only practice our craft in the most beautiful place on earth, but also the most free country on earth.

Today, the Newseum will add the names of 14 journalists who died while reporting the news in 2016. The Newseum also maintains a “Journalists Memorial” which honors those who died while reporting the news. Those 14 names are part of 48 who died last year — “some murdered to silence their work, others covering wars or dangerous assignments,” the Newseum said.

“All lost their lives in the pursuit of truth.”

We hope that no matter where on the political spectrum you fall, that we can all agree that a country with robust, even if fallible, media is infinitely better than state-run outlets or none at all.

More than that, we want to take the time to thank you. If you’re reading this, it must mean that you value or at least recognize the importance of a free press and local journalism. Thank you for supporting us by reading and subscribing.

#WithoutNews would happen without support.

Ironically, the rise of violence against journalists and the threats to freedom around the world are often reported on these news pages. In other words, by exercising the rights of a free press, we often report on threats to the free press.

We report on despots and tyrants who know that one of the essential ways to cling to or gain power is by silencing a free press. In those countries, #WithoutNews is not just a hashtag, it’s a way of life.

That’s why today, we remind folks that being without news is not our normal way of life.

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