May 2009

'Support us or we go away'

By Gail Binkly

Support us or we go away.

That was the stern warning I read recently in a regional publication. Although it was intended for readers of that particular paper, it’s certainly a statement that could be applied to newspapers of all sorts these days.

Once the great cornerstones of American journalism, newspapers are shrinking, fading, even disappearing altogether, as citizens switch their limited attention to television and the Internet. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, for the first time, more people (40 percent) reported getting most of their national and international news from the Internet than from newspapers (35 percent). TV remained the No. 1 source, at 70 percent. (You could name more than one source.)

What’s wrong with that? Why should anyone but people in the newspaper business care if these stodgy old publications with their smeary ink and rustly pages vanish from the face of the earth? Can’t cable news and Web blogs do their job just as well?

I have to say no. The main reason, which has been noted by many other observers, is that few of these new and diverse news providers offer much in the way of serious or objective journalism. What they do offer is a hypedup mixture of carefully chosen facts and pre-formulated emotion slanted for one particular audience. Turn to Fox News for shrill right-wing rantings; switch to MSNBC for sardonic leftwing smugness.

Most cable news provides just a few dollops of news (notice how endlessly they repeat any “breaking news” as they desperately seek to fill air time). The rest of the news space is spent interviewing “expert” guests who are there to reinforce the views of the network. Interviewees who don’t spout the prevailing “wisdom” are interrupted ruthlessly and shouted down, as they are on right-wing talk radio. There’s a lot of talking and very little time for listening or reflection. As my husband put it recently, “The ability to talk non-stop has become more important than anything you have to say.”

Web blogs are even worse, plus they tend to focus on very narrow subjects rather than a broad spectrum of news events.

But, you say, what’s wrong with showing bias? Objectivity was always a myth, wasn’t it?

The answer is: No, not precisely. It was an unattainable goal that was still worth striving for. The best newspapers always relied heavily on reporting that tried to be thorough, balanced and fair. There were separate pages that provided commentary, analysis and opinion. The blogs and the cable talk shows skip the “objective news” portion and offer only the opinion.

The long-term result of this, I fear, will be a Tower of Babel, people listening to only the “news” that fits their own viewpoint and ignoring the rest, everyone shouting, nobody listening, no one willing to consider or even hear a different view.

Another problem with abandoning newspapers for the electronic media is that the news stories the latter carry are so much shorter and less thoughtful than the articles in the paper. Beyond PBS and sometimes CNN, there is little in-depth reporting. It’s all missing children and mass shootings and plane crashes.

Even though newspapers have been shortening their own articles in a desperate attempt to “compete” with TV, there are still many more words in a single news article than in any story you’ll hear on the nightly news. And despite their efforts to kowtow to the lowest common denominator, newspapers still break out now and then with a true investigative, in-depth report.

The fact is, the best reporting is almost always done by the mainstream print media. Would Watergate ever have been exposed if there were no Washington Post? Clearly, the answer is no.

(A recent Mike Keefe editorial cartoon in the Denver Post showed a man asking a woman, “What’s up with city council?” “Here,” she replies, “check out this investigative Tweet.”)

There is one more problem with abandoning papers in favor of electronic news. As TV, cable and the Internet merge into one giant Orwellian entity, which they are already doing, the citizenry will be dependent on essentially one source for news. Sure, there will be different Web sites and different companies on this “super-über-Net,” but the medium will be the same. You will no longer have the option of walking to the corner and buying a paper for 50 cents. You will be forced to own a TV/computer terminal, you will have to subscribe to various news suppliers, you will have to keep your software and hardware constantly updated, you will have to pay whatever the asking price is, just to have access to the most basic news.

That means the poor and the homeless, along with anyone who just doesn’t like computers, will basically be left out. And what happens if there is a prolonged power shortage or a hacker attack that takes down this great Web?

No matter, this vision is coming closer every day. The only bright light in the whole newspaper picture, in fact, is the small local paper, which is continuing to hold on.

However, that’s a mixed blessing, considering the wildly uneven quality of small papers. Some work hard; some mostly practice what we used to call “telephone-book journalism,” meaning the practice of cramming as many local citizens’ names into each issue as possible. No, there’s nothing wrong with printing the names of high-school athletes, engaged couples, “men on the street,” and so on, but the question is, do the papers do anything more? Do they ever tackle challenging, controversial and complex topics? Or is everything a bunch of happy fluff with lots of full-color photos?

The big newspapers have certainly made many mistakes that contributed to their decline — among them, cutting the offerings readers enjoy most (like the TV listings), putting all their best content on the Web for free, and saving money by hiring ever-younger, less-experienced reporters. (A friend once told me, “In the old days, you had kids delivering the paper and adults writing the news. Now it’s the reverse.”)

But ordinary people share the blame for the looming extinction of newspapers, too.

As long as I have been in j o u r n a l i s m , which is a long, long time, the average citizen has had very little appreciation of newspapers, their role, and the incredible amount of work that goes into them. People think information just flows from the skies, I guess, and should be funneled to them for free. There’s no work involved in collecting facts — and assembling them into a coherent, well-written article is as easy as, well, wiggling your nose, like Samantha on “Bewitched.”

Some people who happily pay $5 for a cup of latte will balk at paying 50 cents for a newspaper. They’ll dig one out of a trash barrel and read it rather than pay for their own copy. You can write 50 articles that someone likes and generally agrees with, but if you publish a single one that they find upsetting, they’ll cancel their subscription faster than you can say, “Supersize that order.”

Well, that’s the newspaper business, and it’s about to go the way of film photography and Gregg shorthand. Anyone who likes being able to buy different newspapers, big or small, had better act now. Support your favorite papers — whichever they are — or they will go away. That’s not blackmail, just a fact.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.