Friday, April 07, 2006

No News Is Bad News

In a world without news there would be no common knowledge and no possibility of real democratic debate, yet that seems to be the Orwellian direction in which 21st century economics are taking all of us.

Indeed, one of the rarely sung stories of the Soviet Union's Glasnost is the rise of Argumenty i Facty, a Moscow-based weekly newspaper put together by activists to provide a source of facts that were then hard to find (read: hidden). This was, of course, in a society in which even a telephone directory was available only to those in the Party nomenklatura.

Today in the West, however, little political censorship is needed. I know: I have worked in the business for three decades. All the powers that be need to do is to lure masses to "infotainment" and "infomercials" and away from reading and critical thinking, then sit back and watch the marketplace do the rest. Since 2001, according to conservative estimates, as many as 75,000 jobs in journalism have disappeared in the United States alone.

Consider the following:
  • The New York Times has lost 60 reporting jobs.
  • The Washington Post is cutting 80 reporting positions.
  • On March 14, the McClatchy Company, which owns The Sacramento Bee, bought out for $4 billion the Knight-Ridder newspapers, a chain of 32 newspapers including The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury. The company plans to close 12.
The reason is easy to find. In the fateful year 2001, for the first time since 1954 circulation declined for publications in every single category except financial advisories. Newspapers have never recovered; the only publications that have come back modestly are niche magazines providing entertainment.

"Will we call this the year journalism in print began to die?" asks's The State of the New Media 2006 (read the full report here).

You will be forgiven if you seize on the word "print" and say that you get your news online, or on TV. In fact, however, whatever hard news there is originates in print.

As the report I have just cited shows, the different in the kind of news you get from print and other sources, is not merely a matter of format, but of substance. Television, we all know, only conveys headlines. The Internet originates little or no hard fact, but masses and masses of rumor, innuendo and opinion (you're reading one).

The difference isn't merely the length of the material. It's the reliability and facticity. Newspapers usually get three or more sources for a story; other news outlets rely on considerably less, often second hand and unidentified, without much fact-checking.

There's also a difference is what is covered. Newspapers cover elections and government less than I would like, but TV hardly covers it substantively at all, concentrating instead on crime. And where is there critical and incisive coverage of big business, which influences our lives much more than crime or politics? Hardly anywhere at all.

If you wonder why all this is happening, think two words: the public. People don't read, therefore know less and less about the world around us. The consequences are dire.

Is it any wonder that the collapse of publications began in the first of the George W. Bush presidency, itself ushered in by voters who, inexplicably, could not make up their minds between Bush and Al Gore? Four years later the same thing repeated itself between Bush and Kerry.

To any of us armed with the facts, there was no question what the difference was -- and it was wide -- no matter which one we preferred. A squeaker between the erstwhile center-right Democratic senator Scoop Jackson and the liberal Republican New York governor Nelson Rockefeller might have made some sense: there would have been little choice.

Give Bush credit for hiding just how conservative he was in 2000 with codewords, nods and winks minted by Reaganite neocons. But by 2004, what American could rightfully claim that there was no information about Bush's desire to gut and bankrupt social programs to fund the Pentagon and its ancillary agencies, now fully owned subsidiaries of Halliburton, and prosecute clumsily the struggle against Al Qaeda and manufacturing a war out of whole cloth?

Only those Americans, the increasing majority, who don't read the news. That's why no news is bad news.


anonymous artist said...

It's a small thing, but newspapers don't use artists any more either. They don't want to spend the $25 a drawing they used to pay us.

Joan said...

How much of this decline in newspaper reading is due to overload? Since about the 1970s, newspapers have had increasing numbers of supplements, making them time-consuming to plough through; while the additional material may be good per se, the quantity encourages skimming, rather than in-depth reading. The Sunday papers are the worst in this respect. The more reputable web-sites, otoh, allow one to pursue a story in as much depth (or as little) as one wishes, and generally have links to other sites.