These spellers are players in a bigger game

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The stars of the show, of course, are the 46 North Idaho kids who are going to be spelling their hearts out tomorrow morning.

That was true the first time North Idaho College and the Coeur d’Alene Press collaborated 16 years ago, and it’s true now. Anything to bring out the best in our young people, from athletics to academics, is good for all of us.

NIC embodies the “community” in community college. By hosting the North Idaho Regional Spelling Bee, NIC commits countless hours of preparation time, communication with public, private and home schools across five northern counties and, of course, staging The Really Big Show one Saturday each March. This year, Kathryn Meyer played point guard for the college effort — and played well. Pronouncer Joe Jacoby has manned the mic magnificently every year for more than a decade. He’s the MVP.

For its part, The Press promotes the event and pays the freight. It costs the newspaper about $5,000 each year to cover fees with the national bee, awards and the expense of sending the winner and a guardian to D.C. for the national bee.

And every year we’re asked the same question: In an age when so many newspapers are struggling, why do you invest so much in a spelling bee? The first part of the answer has already been stated: Because it’s a great way to showcase some of the best and brightest young people in an arena that is far less common than a football field or basketball gym. The deeper answer, though, is this: Because we care about literacy.

When The Press committed to the bee 16 years ago, people read more than they do today. That’s not just an assumption or a conclusion based on anecdotal evidence: It’s a fact borne out by the U.S. Department of Labor’s annual American Time Use Study.

The study shows that back in 2004, 28 out of 100 Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on any given day. By 2017 that number had dropped to 19 out of 100 Americans.

In 2004, the study says, the aggregate daily reading time was about 23 minutes per person. In 2017 it had fallen to 17 minutes per person, per day. That’s one half-hour sitcom minus the commercials.

You can’t blame this on youngsters’ indifference to reading, either. The study is showing declines in every age category.

Yes, being in the newspaper business, we have a vested interest in young people wanting to read, because hopefully that means they’ll someday become newspaper subscribers and informed citizens bettering themselves and their communities. But we also admit to harboring some fear.

We’re afraid of a future when mass media, personal and professional communication might be based not on the written word but on videos and audio files, abbreviations and emojis and urban slang; of a future when otherwise intelligent people are rendered functionally illiterate. While these all might be complementary tools helping comprehension and understanding on some levels, as a replacement for written words they’re terrifying.

On Sunday we’ll explore why.

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