Friday, February 6, 2009

Extra, Extra, Read All About It: The Past and Future of Newspapers

The title of this post is two fold. First, the obvious newspaper joke. Second, this is an extra addition to my normal weekly blog schedule: special and exclusive for my readers. Heh.

This is a reply to an article on Huffington Post by Diane Francis, advocating government subsidy for newspapers. In it, she rather legitimately bemoans both the financial state of the newspaper industry and the overly commercial, entertainment-first 'journalism' of network, cable, and internet media. In it, she makes some valid points about the 'white knights' currently becoming the new generation of press barons and the need for an outlet for legitimate journalism of honesty, ethics, and integrity. She makes some interesting points, and I agree that government support of the newspaper industry is an idea worth exploring. My only concern would be that government support not become government control. I am fine with the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post receiving my tax dollars in return for a quality product. I do not want USA Today (already of questionable merit) to become the American version of 'Pravda.'

What bears some attention, however, is that the imploding newspaper business model is a relatively recent thing. The idea of genuine journalism in the modern sense, and of journalistic ethics and integrity, is very new. It evolved, slowly, during the Progressive Era of the century's turn and just before. Investigative reporters, writing in newspapers, nonfiction books, and novels based on fact were given the label 'muckrakers' as they began to expose the corruption and lack of concern for ordinary Americans in much of American business and political life. Many of them were leftists, not merely liberals but socialists or communists, concerned deeply with the rights, livelihood, and safety of the ordinary American. This was the origin of the 'liberal media' so condemned today by the right wing, and its existence was a positive improvement on American life in many ways. They began to share 'the truth' with the nation.

Prior to the Progressive Era, newspapers mixed genuine journalism (largely written by amateur correspondents) with political propaganda (written by ruthless professionals) and frequently mingled the two in ways that would be abhorrent to today's watchdogs of 'journalistic integrity' and would closer mirror the writing of Bob Novak, Richard Reeves, and other members of the class of political writer we now call 'pundits.' 'Real news' was frequently full of political meaning and political propaganda was treated no differently than real news. In other words, every newspaper was someone's personal Fox News, dedicated to their viewpoints.

The first American newspapers were founded by European propagandists at the behest of the first American political parties. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton financed the establishment of newspapers whose sole purpose was to communicate the party line to the nation. Most local newspapers were similarly sponsored by local political interests in either support of or opposition to the state (or colonial, prior to independence) governments. They were funded not by their circulation or by advertisement, but by those who wished to see their views published and were willing to pay for it.

Sadly, we appear to be living in times where we are seeing a reversion to that model. Television news has become pseudojournalistic entertainment dominated by scandal, tragedy, and 'gotcha' reporting. The quasi-exception, Fox News, is a perfect mirror of the original political newspapers of America... and their journalistic content leans toward the same unfortunate trends as their competitors. Newspapers are dying, as television engages the public more forcefully and the internet offers much the same content for free.

However, I do not believe that television and the internet are the real reason that newspapers are dying. I believe that the majority of the public increasingly wants the callow tabloid journalism of newsmagazines and television news. Newspapers are too boring for them, even if their writers try to match television content callow for callow. They want to see video of disasters, not photographs, and they want to hear the anger, disgust, or quiver in the anchor's voice as she shares the news with them. They want to be entertained.

I have a great deal of respect for professional journalists and high regard for journalistic ethics. I have a very dim view of what American journalism appears to me to have become, and I am disgusted that newspapers are dying. Ms. Francis's suggestion of government subsidy may be the only way to save them, but if this is the case then which newspapers shall be saved and how shall we decide?

Journalists deserve to be paid for their work and a venue in which to work. I strive to avoid journalism and focus solely on opinion because I do not wish to present the appearance that this blog is intended as anything but my personal soap box. I would like to see newspapers survive, and to survive as organs of journalism rather than tabloid entertainment.

The question is this: can they?

What does the future hold? Government subsidy can not save every newspaper in every city in all fifty states, and the question of which newspapers are to be saved and which allowed to die raises thorny political questions. I support a genuine national newspaper, not the news in brief of USA Today but a national newspaper along the model of the New York Times, Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times. Yet would such a thing simply become what I mentioned before, the American version of 'Pravda'? It is a danger, but Public Television shows us that government financing does not guarantee a government organ.

The biggest danger we face to the free press is the fact that no one appears to want to pay for the free press. They prefer the commercial media, subsidized by corporations. They prefer the internet, where information is shared by those with an agenda in sharing it.

We may have to face the fact that we are entering a period, like the Progressive Era, where the media and the press undergo drastic changes for good or ill.

If that is the case, the question becomes not how to save the old media, but to create the new media in the proper image.

No comments: