Monday, April 6, 2009

A dreary world indeed!!

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.


Helen H said...

I believe that the method of delivering news will evolve but not disappear. What will emerge will be better and result in more people being well informed, rather than fewer. Right now, for example, I rarely buy a newspaper unless I'm traveling and need something to occupy my time or I am looking for something specific. Instead I use alternate sources of information. These sources result in fewer trips to the recycling center and fewer garbage bags filled with old newspapers.

Here is how I typically find my news. My home page on my computer is the Wall Street Journal. Howard's is the Washington Post. I consult a news portal daily such as Google News which puts me in touch with news articles and feature stories from the New York Times, LA Times, the BBC, Miami Herald, and hundreds more. Needless to say I would never read that many actual newspapers in the course of a day.

The fact is, the world of news has a new face and will continue in that vein. Just look at the revolutionary IPod that transformed how people now listen to music. Going beyond music, for example, my son downloads various podcasts to his IPod every morning to listen to on his commute to work. This is but one example of how people are using technology in ways not imagined a few short years ago.

Other devices are coming on to the market every day that will further transform information accessibility. Computers are getting smaller and more specialized. You can now download a library of books onto a Kindle and read it without using any paper and with no eye strain.

I predict that while "paper" newspapers might see their demise, news services will not. They will evolve. In the not so distant future we might subscribe to a bundle of services much like we do currently with cable or satellite TV. Only these services, which could include news stations or special interest features, will download directly to our handheld devices. I can see a subscription that will include all the aforementioned "newspapers" as well as what are now known as magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Business Week, etc. Alternatively, I might subscribe to an artists network that could include all the magazines I now subscribe to. Well, you get the idea. Personally, I would prefer not to have all the paper that I currently get coming into my mailbox.

Rather than bemoan the inevitable, I am excited about the possibilities. Certainly there will be the negative side. Blogs in response to online news articles are often filled with cynicism and negativity. One can easily espouse hate-filled positions without censorship. But such are the beautiful and ugly consequences of a democracy. I believe that future innovations will help to more fully inform and educate. Bring it on!!

Charles said...

Helen, that's an excellent response. Change is inevitably, and how we manage it is most important. 911 changed the world, and we are managing. It's not pleasant, nor is it easy, but I believe we will survive the change. Print news, while everything Don says about its virtues is on target, simply cannot survive in the modern technological world. Local newspaper reporters may hold their place as the primary source of news, and emerge as the local news feeder for a variety of sources. Who knows, but I believe the thinking people of yesterday will be replaced by thinking people of our newer generation. They will always be around. They will just have newer and better tools. Kids today who are text messaging in code are simply evolving their intellect in a way that seems foreign to us. But make no mistake, their intellect is, indeed, evolving and the brilliant will emerge just as they have in the past. Like you I don't subscribe to a newspaper. To me, technology has made my world rich with information. The opportunities to get at the truth are more abundant than ever. News agencies have to be smart, and get on the train so to speak, because it's leaving the station. It's a great industry and the survival of the free 'press' is critical to our survival as a free republic. I am confident that what emerges from the print media will be as solid and as valuable as paper and ink always was.