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Reports of Newspapers' Death are not Exaggerated

ART TIMES May 2009

As someone who was recently laid off, for the second time in less than a decade, from a company in a dying industry (newspapers), I’ve been extremely worried about three things: 1) my personal situation, 2) the industry and 3) the nation.
My situation, as a 50-plus worker in a culture and society that adore youth and pride themselves on kicking older citizens to the curb, is only one of millions of sad stories, so forget me. Newspapers are closing, laying off staff and abandoning print for the Web. Much has been made of the industry’s woes, some of them self-created, but newspapers will sort them out somehow. They have to, because as Stephen Colbert has said, if newspapers die, where will they print the obituary?
It’s really the country I’m most concerned about.

The so-called democratization of media, fueled by the Internet, has engendered “citizen journalism.” The newspaper, a mainstay of communication for a couple of hundred years, is rapidly giving way to the Internet and the blog, in which opinion and hearsay replace research and accuracy. Piling onto the media is a popular bloodsport; it’s kill-the-messenger time. Whatever happened to reasoned discourse, polite disagreement, debate aimed at reaching a solution or at least a consensus, instead of diatribe and personal attacks for their own sake and to gain laughs at the expense of others?

All those bloggers chortling with schadenfreude over the perhaps prematurely reported death of newspapers don’t understand the eventual cost to society. Profit drives the industry, and only the strong will survive. With fewer newspapers, the survivors will be free to report the truth, or whatever they want – or not. Journalism today often resembles a circus sideshow, but people seem to forget that John Peter Zenger, Alexander Hamilton, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Jacob Riis, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein and others like them not only informed and enlightened but also, on many occasions, saved the republic. They reported on, and sometimes helped stop, governmental and corporate wrongdoing, unjust wars and evil presidencies. Would that we had had their like to stand up to government for the last eight years, and it’s terrifying to contemplate a future where that legacy has vanished. “Ignorance is strength,” wrote George Orwell.
In a recent interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper, writer David Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and creator of the TV show “The Wire,” expressed fear for the future of newspapers and honest government.
“Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model,” said Simon, “To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It's got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”

Automation has long been a threat for many American workers. I’m reminded of Marie Dressler’s smirking remark to Jean Harlow at the end of “Dinner At Eight,” after Harlow has said that machinery will someday take the place of every profession. Looking over her slinky gown and almost indecent figure, Dressler says, “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”

For newspaper workers, the threat is not automation, but outsourcing. Just as the U.S. manufacturing base has disappeared, with workers in Third-World countries performing tasks that used to be done here, local news is being outsourced to places like India. The Pasadena Now Web site has pioneered outsourced journalism, webcamming video of municipal meetings and other local news to India, where reporters write the stories and upload them to the website. They get paid $10 per 1,000 words, which is basically a raise for them. Design and other functions are also outsourced, and it’s catching on with some papers around the country. There are 8 million stories in the Naked City, and they’re now being reported by people in another country. This is the future, and the future is now. Or, as USC journalism professor Bryce Nelson told the Associated Press:

“Nobody in their right mind would trust the reporting of people who not only don’t know the institutions but aren’t even there to witness the events and nuances … this is a truly sad picture of what American journalism could become.”
So what is to be done? Time is running out, if it hasn’t already. While newspapers figure out the right business model to stay or become profitable – indeed, to stay alive at all – readers will have to understand that the consequences of losing them far outweigh personal biases. Readers will have to make some effort to support newspapers, which may require that the papers become more responsive to criticism and more inclusive. The alternative – the death of newspapers – is unthinkable.

(Joseph P. Griffith is a freelance writer in New York).