I confess: I'm tired of arguing about newspapers. In my city, one of the most literate in America, there's still a numb feeling from the loss of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Rocky Mountain News is barely cold in the ground. Thousands of skilled journalists are unemployed and perhaps can never regain their former living standards. The suicide of the industry has little to do with what the dumb-downers and consultants claim. All the enemies we made over the years can dance on our graves. But the issue is pretty well settled. Some newspapers will remain in some form. But the era of great newspapering is over.
So comes Jack Shafer's latest rattle-the-cage piece on Slate, "It's Time to Kill the Idea that Newspapers are Essential for Democracy." Shafer claims he likes newspapers, but...the Republic did fine for its first 100 years without investigative journalism, most people don't care whether newspapers survive, many newspapers did mediocre work and even the best journalism rarely kept government honest for long. Also, "political parties, special interests, and government itself all have a stake in the maintenance of elections and democracy."
He goes on to write:
As I understand it, Shafer once edited a couple of city weeklies, so he suffers the scars of having his clock regularly cleaned by strutting big metro dailies, and his blood pressure raised by the knowledge of some important stories they either ignored or got half right. We all have our biases. I'll show some of mine.
Investigative reporting and the increasing professionalization of journalism rose as America became more complex, industrialized, populated and a world power. The civic literacy of Americans rose, too, in no small part because of newspapers. The best papers and journalists spent a hundred years playing pivotal roles in exposing corruption and wrongs, and, yes, bringing about reform. Maybe most people didn't pay attention for long, but the tipping point was often reached where reform happened. The Seattle Times (where I write a column and blog) still regularly holds powerful feet to the fire in a way that no Web site can. Newspapers were also the public square of a common culture. This was captured by a post on the PI Website before the print paper closed. Channel Z wrote:
In this way they define what is important. They set the focus for concern, examination and action. They signal times of celebration and achievement. The papers serve a critical role in creating the gestalt gathering known as a local community...
Without the papers we have no understood gathering place. There is no dialogue. Those with special interests are free to distort the record without recourse. And we as a community become more polarized and chauvinistic. Critical thinking takes a holiday because there is no place for the factual record created by authoritative journalism...
I suggest that the value of newspapers with high journalistic standards and in particular more than one such newspaper is best defined not in scoops, extra editions and nostalgia for rivalry but in terms of its invaluable role as a place of definition and dialogue. Without it, I fear we will fall further into Huxley's nightmare of tyrants who rule through their ability to define the world to their liking.
In addition, for millions of people, the newspaper remains a remarkably satisfying "delivery platform" for news and information. These people -- for years ignored or held in contempt by many newspaper corporate executives -- don't want to get their news from the Internet. Sitting at the computer is work. Reading the newspaper over coffee is a pleasure. Yet, largely because of an unsustainable business model and cowardly leadership in the industry, these readers are increasingly out of luck.
What will survive? A few newspapers on line and in print that strive for authoritative, sophisticated journalism. The rump of the industry slowly dying as it keeps dumbing itself down and trying to Tweet about it. Blogs will come and go, but as fewer professional journalists can get paid, there will be less original reporting, especially of complicated institutions and situations. The corporate oligarchs, of course, have an interest in discouraging real journalism, especially where it scrutinizes them.
There will be some investigative efforts from other outlets such as ProPublica and a new initiative from Huffington Post. But it's unlikely these ventures will have the reach and influence of the old press, or dig at the local level. They won't have the power that's exemplified, and only slightly romanticized, in the climax of the movie Deadline USA. The gang boss is on the phone threatening the crusading managing editor (played by Humphrey Bogart -- who else?) to kill a story that will expose his corrupt ties to politicians. Hearing the sudden thunder in the background as the giant offset machines start, the boss demands to know: What's that noise? Says Bogie: "That's the press, baby, the press. And there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing."
That's gone for most American cities.
So we'll see the civil society that's built on our many electronic distractions. Those with the time and critical thinking skills -- not something our schools have taught lately -- may be very well informed. Most will be less informed, or prisoners of media that merely reinforce their world views. "Political parties, special interests, and government" will all have stronger voices for their agendas. Manias, rumors and groupthink will be more prevelant. In many localities, people will be particularly ill-informed about their government and major economic powers, pluralism will decrease and corruption will rise.
One of the lessons of the 25-year march to our current siege of crises and institutional failure is that trouble often doesn't come from a single act and society ("democracy") isn't constructed from a single phrase ("the American dream"). Trouble often comes when one thread is pulled, then another, weakening the fabric over time. The best of American society proved to be a remarkably complex and finely balanced clockworks -- one we've been vandalizing for years. And yes, at our best, we reported on it.
I say great journalism is essential for self-government. But that argument's no longer academic. We're going to live it.