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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Newspapers are for burning

  • This graph from Pew Research shows the trends for where people get their news during the 21st century.
Newspapers are in trouble. The print media have been battling for some years now to survive the competition for readers and advertisers from the Internet. Newspaper chains of five years ago no longer exist in the same form. Few of the major newspapers of the northern Midwest have the same owners they did five years ago, except for those owned by Lee Enterprises, which includes the Rapid City Journal. And Lee stocks are so valueless that they are being removed from trade on the stock exchanges.

Tim Giago, founder of The Lakota Times, thinks newspapers will not solve their declines in circulation until they organize together and stop putting their work on the web. There is no doubt that people don't buy news that they can get free on the Internet. Newspapers are only one of the media to put news on the Internet. People will continue to get their information from from their computers as long as it is free. And newspapers do have a problem with timeliness. This morning's local newspaper carried stories in its first four pages that I saw three days ago from Internet sources.

Contrary to the conventional absence of wisdom, the fact is that newspapers have led the development of using new technology to disseminate the news they gather. However much bloggers may give their notions of the trouble with newspapers, this article in Slate traces their attempts to incorporate information technology into their operations. Bloggers have opinions. Few have actual information. Newspapers that value journalism as a discipline have the edge on accuracy and reliability, and the death of newspapers poses serious threats to democracy.

However, many newspapers do not deserve to survive. In their efforts to keep up with current notions of journalistic fads, they have dummied down their products to compete with cable news, its local versions on television, and Internet news aggregators. The dimmer journalistic lights have followed the alleged standard of writing to an eighth-grade audience and have lowered that to third grade. That rule has never been used in real journalistic organizations which concern themselves with clear, effective writing. Good writing elevates its readers. It does not cater to ignorance, mental laziness, and the celebration of platitudes and the seamy. Some newspapers have contributed to their own demise by dummying-down their content and the level of literacy on which they evaluate news and presentation. The tabloid press, however, seems to be more sucessful at weathering the economic crunch that besets the newspaper business.

While the current mis-mythology is that print journalism is losing readers--which is true--it is also true that print media are experiencing a growing schism between the intellectual and popular culture. Blogs decry what they call the Mainstream Media, and it is a fact that newspaper circulation even among the most prestigious is declining, but it is also true that people who want excellently written, reliable news, and competently informed opinion are dependent upon organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and with all its financial woes, The Chicago Tribune for relevant, sharply focused, and literate information and ideas. That dependency does cause alarm among the more literate class.

There was and in some cases is an editorial process in newspapers designed to insure accurate, complete facts and competent, clear writing. When a reporter submitted a story, it would first go to the copy desk, which would correct any SPUG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) problems, deal with organizational matters, and look for any omissions or improvements that could be made. Then, before it was set in type, an editor would review the story for newsworthiness, perspective, verified facts, essential background, and appropriate style. If a piece needed revisions, it would be sent back to the reporter or sent to the rewrite desk. Years ago, on some newspapers, all the writing was done at the rewrite desk. Reporters would call in or present their reports, and highly experienced and proficient writers would do the actual writing of them.

Electronics changed that process. Television and radio journalism became largely a matter of stringing sound-bites together. Electronic reports had no time for background, highly informative writing, or full development of news stories. The Edward R. Murrows and the McNeil-Lehrers are considered boring by the majority of listeners and viewers. With computers, newspapers also circumvented the editorial process. Reporters submit their writing to a server. In many newspapers, editors only place stories on the pages and write headlines for them. They do not get involved in actual editing and rewriting. This process cuts the need for editorial personnel and eliminates the many steps of the traditional editorial process.

As a section editor, I made the final decisions about what went into the sections for which I was responsible. However, my copy was reviewed for clarity before being set in type and was pro0f-read afterward. And every morning at 7:15, there was a conference with the editors that reviewed the previous day's edition and planned the work and layout for the day. If there were problems to be noted or improvements to be made, they would be covered at length in these conferences.

In all the conjecture and talk about the demise of newspapers, few comments deal with what journalism is as a profession and the process that establishes editorial integrity and quality. Initially, journalism was a literary art. Journalists prided themselves on being fine and knowledgeable writers. Over the years, journalism schools have become disassociated from departments of English in universities and have become allied with departments of business, marketing, and social science. The emphasis has shifted from reporting facts and a literary quality of writing to measuring and manipulating the audience.

Critics of culture of note that in the last three decades of the 20th century, American culture underwent some severe intellectual and moral failures, which the critics see as the result of a declining literacy. Low test scores in mathematics and science get much press because they are seen as more directly related to competitiveness in the economy, but reading and writing scores have also lagged. The most telling evaluation of the literacy of a culture is in the level of material it consults for information. The Pew graph above illustrates the trend.

Bloggers contemplate the death of newspapers with schadenfreude. They take a joy in thinking that they are driving newspapers out of business and will replace them as sources of news. A number of articles have appeared concerning the prediction that The New York Times will be defunct by May of this year. Some dispute the premise of the prediction. But the financial statements show a possibility that the newspaper business could disintegrate as rapidly as the financial markets. There will be no bail-outs for the news business, however.

The financial state of newspapers is depressing. The literate state of the Internet is deplorable. One of the reasons is that political hacks who tend to dominate the blogosphere think they are journalists. As a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review points out, they aren't. The real danger is that a readership is developing that does not make a distinction between real reporting and careful writing and the representations of fact made by people possessed by partisanship and opinions that demonstrate their warp. To them, facts are something to distort or make up.

There is much good journalism available online, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications that, like it or not, have set a literacy standard that is seldom matched online. Being online brings up another matter besides journalistic quality that does not get mentioned--the efficacy of print on paper. Print graphics is a science. It deals with the formats most conducive for human psycho-motor apparatus to effectively absorb and understand what is read. Newspapers, magazines, and books have an edge for heavy-duty reading, while television and computer monitors suffice for quick, superficial takes on a subject.

Whatever the format, there is an audience, however much in decline, for a high standard of reporting and writing. Many newspapers may die. Those people looking for quality writing and excellence in reporting will be served somehow. The real danger in the demise of journalism is in the expansion of the culture wars, which are somewhat in remission. Other countries have experienced class warfare between the educated and the ignorant and resentful. Our country developed because of a vigorous press striving to examine the best that is thought and expressed. It has from the beginning moved toward the acquisition of education and literacy.

The death of our best newspapers may well signal the end of that movement.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States