by Don Klein
There is an American tragedy developing and its has nothing to do with the financial meltdown. It is much more serious and longer lasting than that. It is the gradual demise of the American newspaper.
If you don’t think that is a tragedy then you have been taking too much of your life for granted. The Wall Street crisis will be resolved in time. We all know that. Things will gradually stabilize in the financial world. It always has. There will be changes but soon enough people will be buying stocks again and making money from it.
Not so with the demise of newspapers. That is an entirely different problem and once gone will never return and the America we knew during the life of this country so far will have been changed forever.
What’s so important about the existence of newspapers, you might ask?
Several things but the most important is that the foundation of a healthy operating democracy is a free and open press. The only way a democracy works properly is if the people know what is happening. Democracy depends upon an informed public to make the right decisions.
Without a well established and healthy press the public will be fed a soft diet of misinformation from a self-serving government and treacherous business elements -- and people will never know the truth if the truth doesn’t serve powerful interests. Special interest groups will become more muscular because their one sided stands will go unchallenged by the light of facts thrown on most subjects by a free press.
You think television news will take over and fill the gap left by vanishing newspapers? Don’t fool yourself. Virtually all local TV news originates with newspaper reporters covering the community served by their papers. Local TV reporters read the local newspapers carefully before they go out on assignments for that day’s TV news. Who will provide those sources without a live press in action.
Local TV stations cover City Hall, the state houses, police and fire activities, but little else. They don’t have the resources of an active and diligent newspaper with reporters spread all through the many communities.
Even national news, with the possible exception of Washington government coverage, is provided by local papers.
How would we learn about ex-Illinois Gov. Blagojevich’s plans to sell a senate appointment if it weren’t for the Chicago newspapers?
How would we learn about how badly wounded Iraq veterans were being mistreated at Walter Reed Hospital if not for reporters at The Washington Post?
How would we know about the horrors in the aftermath of hurricanes if it weren’t for local reporters getting out and speaking to victims, rescue workers and local officials seeking hard facts?
How would we know about the trials and tribulations of survivors of 9/11 victims in New York if local Manhattan papers didn’t do the hard legwork?
It goes on and on. The worst part is that without the press as a watchdog the big wheeler-dealers in the country will run away with everything and no one would be able to stop them. Welcome back robber barons. Eliot Spitzer would still be governor if The New York Times didn’t catch him cheating.
Newspaper losses have already been felt throughout the country. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver closed just a few weeks ago, so did the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and lesser newspapers around the country. The New York Times has been laying off staff every few months lately and The Washington Post is inducing editorial workers to take early retirement.
Many papers are facing questionable futures. The Chicago Tribune, once the most outspoken editorial voice in the mid-west is in serious financial trouble as is its rival the Chicago Sun-Times, so is the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. If these papers disappear who will be around to report the skullduggery of local officials and businesses?
During World War II there were nine daily English languages newspapers in New York plus an unknown number of foreign language dailies. They all were profitable. In Baltimore the Sunpapers (morning, evening and Sunday) were giant cash cows for their owners. But that was when newspapers were the most efficient mass market advertising vehicles around. It was before television with its even greater advertising appeal.
And though reduced advertising revenues is the cause for today’s failing newspapers, the fault lies deeper than that. The trouble is young people can’t be bothered to read newspapers. Or perhaps any kind of reading other than text messaging. They can’t spell like kids used to and they don’t have the attention span to devote to anything other than the pablum served up on television or the hypnotic appeal of the internet.
Whatever the reason the end for newspapers may be near and when it comes it will greatly diminish the ability of people in this country to govern themselves. I don’t think Thomas Jefferson or Abe Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, if any of them were alive today, would be happy about it. Neither am I, but I am glad I am too old to live to see such a listless and avaricious world.
If I can’t hold a newspaper in my hands in the morning and read about what’s happening in the world, the day turns solemn indeed. I’d know that someone is taking my country away from me, but won’t know who because there would be no newspaper to reveal the information. I would be sick indeed.
And so should you. If you love democracy, a world without newspapers would be dreary undeed.