If Thomas Paine were alive today, there’s little doubt you would find him blogging from www.commonsense.org, challenging concentrated power, conspicuous wealth, and a culture amusing itself to death. Paine would likely have cherished the chance to engage his readers in debate, and spur them to direct action for better government and a more equitable economy. When people pick up a newspaper or view it online, they need to feel that the multitude of voices within are devoted to them: a democratic people determined to stay that way. One man, with one voice, did that for the American colonies—and it changed the world.

No matter what form journalism takes in the coming years, it will only remain relevant if it follows Paine’s example and treats people like citizens worthy of serious conversations. The profession forgets this at its own peril. Or, as Paine would say: “Character is much easier kept than recovered.”

Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management and a frequent contributor to The Guardian.