Newspapers...and After? | The Nation


Newspapers...and After?

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What that translates to is this: If we assume that Inquirer reporters work normal schedules, there are substantial portions of any given week when fewer than five journalists provide the primary coverage for a city of 1.4 million people. Major news stories are going untold. Vast stretches of a metropolis are being neglected. And the reporter-to-population ratio will soon worsen, as plans are implemented to cut up to 17 percent of remaining editorial jobs. More significant, as Ed Herman, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and an expert not just on the media but on Philadelphia, told me last year, the sense of civic connection that should be nurtured by a great newspaper is instead fraying. "Newspapers were once thought to bring communities together. That's not the case anymore," he said, explaining, "People aren't stupid. They recognize when their local newspaper loses interest in them as anything but consumers of advertisements."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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It is the recognition of what is being lost that has inspired journalists to begin speaking up and getting active in ways that have not been seen since media unions began to organize in the 1930s. The Newspaper Guild and its parent union, the Communications Workers of America, organized a Day of Action on December 11 to draw attention to the fact that cuts, often seen only in isolation, add up to a crisis not just for journalism but for the political and governmental processes of the nation. "That's why we're asking the public to join us--for democracy's sake--to say no to cutting the jobs of journalists and all workers whose work supports good journalism," explained Guild president Linda Foley.

Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins puts it best when she says that newspapers aren't dying but committing suicide. "What really pisses me off," she told the journal of the newspaper industry, Editor & Publisher, is "this most remarkable business plan: Newspaper owners look at one another and say, 'Our rate of return is slipping a bit; let's solve that problem by making our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.'" If there has been a model of American newspaper innovation in the past three decades, it's this: Never do something bold, edgy or intelligent when there is a predictable and useless gimmick into which energy and resources can be dumped for a few years.

At the same time, newspaper owners have poured resources into lobbying for federal policy shifts that would allow them to merge with competitors and create one-newsroom towns. The Newspaper Association of America and industry lobbyists have been pushing for years for the elimination of the Federal Communications Commission's newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban, which prohibits ownership by a single firm of a newspaper and television and radio stations in the same market. Newspaper owners argue that with the ban lifted, they could cut costs by having the same journalists produce online and print reports and appear on company-owned radio and TV news programs. In the few cities where the cross-ownership model has been tried, however, there is no evidence to suggest that it produces better journalism or a more informed public. Instead it makes the few remaining reporters busier, leaving them with less time for what Washington Post veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss says is the most important work of journalism: thinking.

Left to their own devices, the current owners of American newspapers are indeed likely to consummate the suicide pact they have entered into with their investors. That should scare the hell out of Americans who recognize that Jefferson was right when he said that good journalism is essential to democracy. It should also get citizens asking the right questions: If newspapers really are fading away, what comes next? And in this period of transition, how do we assure that the vital role that newspapers still play is not lost? As sad as the end of newspapers might be for someone like me, who began writing at age 11 for the weekly newspaper in my Wisconsin hometown, the important question for the great mass of Americans is not, How do we save newspapers? It's, How do we still get a healthy mix of reported news and analysis from a variety of at least reasonably reliable sources?

Local television stations, identified by a majority of citizens as their primary source of news about civic life, are actually covering less political news than they did a decade ago. A new survey of the coverage of the 2006 election season, conducted by University of Wisconsin researchers, established that "local television news viewers got considerably more information about campaigns from paid political advertisements than from actual news coverage." The survey also said that "Local newscasts in seven Midwest markets aired four minutes, 24 seconds of paid political ads during the typical 30-minute broadcast [before the election] while dedicating an average of one minute, 43 seconds to election news coverage."

The Internet certainly devotes more attention to politics. But, for the most part, the information discussed is still gathered by newspaper reporters, and while a few high-profile journalists have begun to migrate from old-fashioned newsrooms to the blogosphere, they tend to arrive as commentators rather than gatherers of news. The web has yet to emerge as a distinct journalistic force--let alone one that speaks with the authority at the local, state or regional level of a traditional daily newspaper. While the web may someday be home to sites that generate the revenues needed to pay reporters and editors to produce meaningful journalism, that day has yet to arrive in any real sense.

"What is really frightening is that newspapers appear to be dying so quickly that they may disappear, or at least disappear as a serious part of our lives, before we have a replacement for them. That's a grave danger to democracy," says Maraniss. "As flawed as journalism as practiced by newspapers is, we don't have another vehicle for journalism that picks up where newspapers leave off. That's what we should be worried about. Maybe newspapers can be replaced, probably newspapers can be replaced. But journalism can't be replaced--not if we're going to function as any kind of democracy."

European and Asian media owners have been a good deal more creative and aggressive in their response to the changing circumstances of newspapers. And in many cases, though certainly not all, they have been more successful than their American counterparts in maintaining the popular appeal of print publications. European publishers have, for instance, been far more willing to invest in radical redesigns of papers and new printing and distribution systems. And they have long recognized something that is close to unimaginable to those who guide American newspapering: that taking strong front-page stands on issues such as the genetic modification of food and global warming--becoming what the British refer to as a "campaigning newspaper"--does not inspire charges of bias but instead draws readers to groundbreaking journalism.

While the Chicago Tribune surely gets high marks for its attention to the death penalty issue, newspapers like Britain's Independent embark on dozens of campaigns in the course of a year--even going so far as to give their front pages over to promotions of rallies and protest marches against everything from poverty in Africa to the war in Iraq. But it's not just that European publishers are more engaged and adventurous. European citizens and their governments have a tradition of taking seriously the role newspaper journalism plays in building a civil and democratic society.

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