Sunday, March 8, 2009

A lament for newspapers

The world has changed from the time of my youth – with high exposure to many types of media. But change is constant, so studying how the answer changes to what life is all about is important. Since I have a mind of my own, after garnering facts from newspaper articles (not the editorials), I’ll decide the answer for myself. But most people are so busy these days that they all too often do not pick up a daily newspaper and, instead, sit in front of the TV allowing the commentators to fill their brains with mostly garbage. Being retired, I have the time to spend a couple of hours browsing the internet to read online newspaper articles from all over the U.S. and the world. This helps me to be well-informed.

Survey the latest news about newspapers – the unending layoffs of staffers, the ever-shrinking content – and then understand that there's a threat here, not just for those being laid off from a struggling business, but to you. The threat is a curtailment of unadulterated, straightforward information resulting in a wholesale intellectual diminution.

Tom Watkins, a freelance writer and business education consultant, said, “Our newspapers are dying across America …. Does the death of newspapers equal the death of our democracy? We are losing great newspaper writers to budget cuts and early and forced retirements. One has to wonder when the last quality writer will be asked to shut off the lights of once-proud newspapers.”

Due to a lack of profit from falling retail advertising and circulation decline, thousands of newspaper jobs have gone out the window, many of them at our most prestigious papers. A study by the Pew Research Center shows that 85 percent of metro papers and more than half of small-town dailies have laid off staff over the past several years. The smaller staffs are accompanied by less space for news, and, according to Pew, we are therefore getting reduced coverage and quality. Many newspapers are completely shutting down such as The Rocky Mountain News, Denver’s leading newspaper for the last 150 years, and The Cincinnati Post, its presses stilled after 126 years.

It is easy to join the crowds in cursing mass media, putting newspapers into that same genre, chanting about negativity, bias, shallowness, tastelessness and more. Yet there is a broader truth about the accomplishments of print journalism and its place in our pluralistic, democratic society. Consider how much less you would know without newspapers. Your life experience would be less rich, less discerning, alert, or aware. It would be as if someone were dimming the lights, and those of us who are now newspaper readers would be more prone to misunderstandings, more likely to miss opportunities, and much more gullible.

Newspapers do something that television news cannot. They give you details, all those little pieces of information that add up to context and understanding. On television, a summary of a major event in a few minutes or more does not allow viewers learn much. It is the details that attach the information to your brain, and when they are provided in print, the brain works more intently than when watching television.

Too many people are turning to Faux News (Fox) and glitzy CNN to get information. But the television “news” channels provide very little in the form of real news. They are what I call “entertainment news.” They latch onto high profile stories, refusing to let go, all too often making news instead of reporting news. I do not need or want the “news” to give me presumptive or allegedly definitive answers to how the world works and why. That is the reason I do not particularly like “entertainment news” commentators such as Lou Dobbs on CNN, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, or Sean Hannity on FOX. What they do is not news, but opinion which leans too far left or too far right.

The plentiful critiques and criticisms of the “entertainment news” media is a cacophony that dulls the ability of people to get to the heart of what they need to know, want to know, and why. As a thinking person, I want to find my own answers to how the world works. I do not want to be told what to think.

If people would spend at least 30 to 60 minutes each day turning off the “reality” shows on TV, and, instead, browse newspaper headlines and read a few articles about what is going on in the world, most would have a better understanding of life. The straightforward articles from the newspaper are the best place to garner unbiased information, with the exception being the editorial pages, because it is an “instruction manual for operating in the world.” As a history teacher, this is what I told my students. If they listened to me, and hopefully most did, they learned to ask who, what, when, where, why, how, so what and what does it mean – to be thinkers and doers.

Again, the newspaper is an instruction manual, not the manual. But it is a manual we citizens all need in order to maintain our democracy. In a dictatorship, what is one of the first industries they want to control? It is the newspapers.

Will “entertainment news” and bloggers become the new paradigm of news? I don’t know. I hope not. Many young people mistake Jon Stewart’s and Steven Colbert’s news parodies for news. They also rely on blogs for their news. Bloggers, like me, are not professional journalists.

Not all is necessarily lost. Perhaps innovative editors will come up with ways to use the internet to preserve the value of newspapers. A continued demand for better information products by an audience hungry for it, as well as brighter, braver, more imaginative media executives who come up with new business models and a better use of technology might help some newspapers survive.

It would help if more citizens understood the value of newspapers.