Friday, March 27, 2009

Newspapers: Do They Deserve to Be Where They Are?

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press fewer than half (43%) of Americans "say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community 'a lot'." I've posted here before about why I feel newspapers are important, but I'm beginning to think it's the "ideal" of what newspapers could be that I really want to save, an ideal that most papers, including the venerable New York Times or my local paper, the former Pulitzer-winning Inquirer, now struggling through Chapter 11, aren't living up to.

I could be spoiled having grown up in what may well be remembered as a "golden age" for news reporting. It started with the broadcast of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the brazen TV reporter Edward R. Murrow (Good Night and Good Luck) ready to to take on the Senator from Wisconsin, and ended at Watergate, with the Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and more, falling in between. Back then reporters, whether on TV or in print, were celebrities. At George Washington U, my alma mater, admiring whispers followed the fellow student who interned for columnist Jack Anderson, the way students today might point out America's Next Top Model. When the White House press corps gathered on the lawn for breaking news (as when Nixon chose Gerald Ford to replace Spiro Agnew) groupies lined the fence hoping for a wave from a young Dan Rather. Anchor Walter Cronkite was once considered "the most trusted man in America." And then there were––drum roll please––Woodward & Bernstein, two young Washington Post reporters who famously brought down a president.

TV was the Internet of its day and yet, it did not destroy newspapers. Instead, print journalism found its niche complementing TV. While our sets brought Vietnam into our living rooms each evening and allowed us to watch politicians and their henchmen squirm under the lights, it was most often newspapers that brought us the breaking news, usually after long and careful investigation, dotting every i; crossing every t. Papers were the deliberative Senate to TV's faster moving House. TV showed us; newspapers told us, in the inverted pyarmid style, that provided much more depth and detail.

Struggling newspapers would have you believe the problem is one of medium––print v screen––and advertising dollars. I believe it's more than that. After all, online publishing may not bring in as much revenue, but it is also cheaper to produce, and with a little creativity newspapers could come up with ways to remain viable. The real question is whether newspapers, online or in print, still fill a need.

For one brief moment, when an older Dan Rather claimed to have documentation regarding W's shirking of his National Guard duty, some tried to claim that the blogosphere was the real venue for unbiased reporting. The idea being that, in the manner of Wikipedia, bloggers would fact-check each other and truth would out. In reality the blogosphere is a lot of biased people yelling at each and readers choosing the blogs that most match their own bias with little interest in any vetting process.

Newspapers can be the antidote to all that. They can, but sadly most are not. Not currently, anyway. In a desperate effort to gain readers, instead of providing an alternative to blogs, many newspapers ended up mirroring them, and worse, using blogs as (inaccurate) news sources as with the Martin Eisenstadt hoax.

We don't need newspapers to pick up on the trends and parrot them as they did in the build up to Iraq when no major newspaper questioned the evidence on WMD. (And immediately offered mea culpas when the president's approval rating began to plummet). The lowest point was when the Bush White House Press Corps participated in the charade of a scripted press conference without once acknowledging it resulting in the mildest questions I've ever heard. Then, suddenly, in Bush's last press conference, asking the tough questions when it no longer mattered, because the president wasn't popular anymore.

There is a need for a press that asks the tough questions the public can't or may not know to ask. This need is all the more important when the entire nation appears to be marching in the same direction, because the press could save us, as with Iraq, from marching off a cliff. There is a need for a press with the access and time to dig deeper. There is a place for a press that provides stories we know have been vetted and fact-checked, that haven't come from some blog posted that morning, but are based on reliable sources.

Right now most newspapers aren't filling that need. Part of me hates to see so many newspapers die, but the other part feels they deserve it.


Haikuyou said...

Interesting issue. I texted my younger brother, a smart senior in high school, to see where he and his friends get their news (they seem so well informed). His reply: "CNN podcasts, c-span podcasts, npr station and podcasts, congress websites, bbc, a bunch of other stuff."

One thing I notice is that every morning when I see the NY Times, I've already read all the stories either the night before or earlier that morning.

I don't think printed newspapers will be able to compete. They lack a mechanism for targeting ads the way online advertising allows, they carry a fraction of the content available online, and the rising generations' minds function in a way that newspaper formats are not conducive to.

One last thought with regard to bias: I read all sorts of biased blogs. I think that they are less dangerous in that we understand their slant. News sources that claim to be unbiased scare me. With the open and blatant bias of most blogs, I feel we are getting a sort of upfront disclaimer. I don't get that with newspapers, who all want to pretend to be unbiased, but cannot be given that they cannot cover ever single story and must make decisions on what to highlight. I don't know if that makes sense.

I read "Zuni the Pueblo Dog" on Sotto Voce. I highly enjoyed it. Dissolution in the arts is something I dread. But I loved the redemption in that glimpse of a smile from an artist like Tanya who somehow keeps the balance.

Nannette Croce said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment and sorry it took so long to approve. I have some family things going on right now. Think I'll stop the moderation for a time.

The newspaper issue is one on which I have a lot of ambivalence. For example, what happens in a Katrina situation if there are no more papers in print? Or anytime the power/internet service is down?

Thanks for your comments on Zuni as well. Hope you enjoyed the entire issue. SV is a great zine.

Danceattak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Haikuyou said...

You are right about the Daily Show for sure. John Stewart is, without a doubt, one of the most gutsy people in journalism right now. In my fully unscientific memory, I think I recall a poll showing that more college kids do get their info from him than any other news source. If that is the case, they are in good hands. He's pretty much the only person who asks the tough questions. I couldn't believe his exchange with msnbc's Jim Krammer -- I've never felt so uncomfortable in my TV viewing life as when he sprung those videos on him. It's not something I'm used to -- a journalist actual doing his job.


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