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.