James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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No news is bad news: Read this, and then pick up a newspaper

Posted by James McPherson on March 23, 2009

One sign indicating the seriousness of so many failing newspapers is the number of seeming competitors that are bemoaning the passing of those papers.

CNN is doing it today. Time did it last month, in a story titled “What happens when a town loses its newspaper?” Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker has done it. Chris Matthews did yesterday, recalling his days as a delivery boy and concluding the segment by showing how to fold a newspaper for throwing and then hurling it at the camera.

A site titled “Newspaper Death Watch” keeps track of the metropolitan dailies that fold. Just over a dozen such papers have gone under in since last March, with more to come. One of my students (for whom it matters even more, since she is about to graduate and will need a job) and many others also are keeping track of the morbid and apparently endless decline.

“A century ago, 689 cities in the United States had competing daily newspapers,” Princeton University researchers recently noted. “At the start of this year, only about 15 did, but one of those has already lost its second newspaper and two more will likely become one-paper towns within days.”

Yet frequently when I (or others, with much bigger audiences) complain about the state of the media someone–usually a young person who doesn’t read a newspaper–asks why we should care. After all, there’s lots of news online, right?

This flawed thinking is in itself an obvious sign of the costs, which include, to use a favorite phrase of one of my regular commenters and others, the “dumbing down” of America. (In fact we may not be getting dumber, but despite an explosion of types of available media, neither are we getting smarter). And though I have written about the issue previously here  (including in response to comments) and elsewhere–all the new attention to the problem seems to warrant further discussion.

Actually Time did a good job of discussing some of the problems, citing the Princeton University study that found (as I also have noted) that the loss of a newspaper is bad for democracy. Voter turnout drops. Fewer people run for office. Incumbents, who rarely lose anyway, are re-elected at even higher rates (so perhaps Democrats should be hoping for more newspaper deaths).

The fact that most people got most of their political news before the last election from cable television–the likes of MSNBC and Fox News–also helps indicate why electoral knowledge is weak. At least one study has shown, as I’ve written elsewhere, that increased watching of Fox may actually make people less informed; I suspect the same is now true of MSNBC.

Relying on a single source for news is invariably a bad idea, which is why we should worry even though most of the newspapers now going out of business are in cities with other newspapers. Lack of competition creates complacency, and encourages the remaining survivor to do what’s easy and cheap–as my own local daily has become too accustomed to doing.

Some news organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have gone online only, typically making deep staff cuts while shifting to a format that many Americans can’t or won’t use (though newspapers have for some time also neglected to serve wide segments of the population that seem unlikely to appeal to many advertisers).

Besides, those who point out that they can get their news from the Internet often neglect to notice that almost all of their favorite news sites–and by far the most accurate and useful sites–come from mainstream news organizations where web operations are being heavily subsidized (monetarily and in terms of content) by the traditional newspaper or broadcast operations.

In addition, the typical web-only reader tends to neglect local community news–about city hall, local schools, etc.–which happens to be the level of government where most citizens could have the most influence. As I’ve noted before, you have a far greater chance of being struck by lightning than you have of affecting a presidential election with your vote. But you can affect the course of your school district, and therefore the education of your kids.

Because no one has yet figured out a way to adequately “monetize the web” (to use a phrase students and I heard repeatedly in January from media leaders in New York and Washington, D.C.)  when traditional news sources disappear, their web presence also often disappears (or is dramatically reduced) along with them.

Despite the optimism of some (including some former journalists), if that happens then at least some of our ability to govern ourselves will go, too.

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8 Responses to “No news is bad news: Read this, and then pick up a newspaper”

  1. […] cuts at the New York Times and Washington Post yesterday–at the same time it was featuring a clueless “iReport” feature titled “Let newspapers go”–holding the fact that […]

  2. […] one hope for justice might be if a declining press suddenly figured out that a way to save themselves might be to somehow make themselves relevant […]

  3. […] today that a survey shows that newspaper sales–and news media credibility in general–have soared in recent weeks. Sadly, the news apparently came just a little too late for the Rocky Mountain […]

  4. […] major point of the First Amendment, and something that if practiced might actually improve Americans’ opinions about the new media–would do well to remember that to reach people in a meaningful way, you […]

  5. […] station, and a local magazine editor. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know I won’t be an optimistic voice on the […]

  6. […] in your local newspaper than on some interested bystander. Better yet, use both–while you still can. Tagged with: Bill O’Reilly, citizen journalism, community journalism, hyperlocal journalism, […]

  7. […] Chances are I’ll also write more letters to the editor of my local newspaper, assuming it survives, and will continue to contribute comments to other people’s blogs. Though I don’t […]

  8. […] (defining the term broadly) Robin Toner,  Tim Russert and Tony Snow, pinup queen Bettie Page, and various newspapers. Many of my posts were less timely, however, and have ongoing relevance. Fifty of my favorites can […]

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