If you look forward to finding your local paper on your doorstep each morning, to reading it with your breakfast coffee or in your recliner after work, consider this. “That lovable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose,” according to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times may be on its way out.
The March 31 issue of the New Yorker Magazine contains a long, provocative article titled “Out of Print,” by Eric Alterman. There has long been lively debate about the merits of the various ways in which we receive information — commercial vs. public television, the much longer history of good and bad newspaper journalism and more recently, the Internet and its accompanying Blogosphere. Digital appears to be the choice of younger generations; older citizens usually opt for the print media and television.
Alterman draws fine distinctions about information gathering by getting us to think about authority. He writes about the debates between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s, calling it “one of the most instructive and heated intellectual debates of the American 20th century.
Lippmann, the elitist author of “Public Opinion” in 1922, describes a public that is “slow to be aroused and quickly diverted; . . . events have to be melodramatized,” he says, reminding me of yellow-rag sheets, cable news and talk radio. He proposed “intelligence bureaus” that would have free access to government and would inform the public of what they needed to know through the press.
Dewey, on the other hand, called this an indictment of democracy. His faith rested in the “capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished.” He preferred to think of man’s ability to reach informed consensus through discussion and debate, but it’s doubtful that his ideal was reached in his life. Both men spent the greater part of their lives thinking and writing about these two divergent views.
A matter of trust
I was reminded of a personal experience I had back in the 1980s. As a hospital public-relations manager, I attended a conference in Albany promising to show us how to better use the Internet to generate publicity for our respective hospitals. A professional communications “expert” told us that the first thing he did each morning was scan all the cutting-edge medical news coming over the Internet and thinking about how he could tie in any new techniques, programs or services being offered at his hospital. Then he would pitch those stories to area TV stations and newspapers.
I raised my hand. “From the myriad stories you are scanning, what sources do you trust,” I asked. He gave it a moment’s thought and replied: “Well, the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins Hospital are usually reliable.” So I have long been worried about sources and authority, a little bit elitist about the background of those I trust. It may be that rather than Googling for your medical information, you should find yourself a well-trained family practitioner. Or it might be well to do both.
Every man has a voice
But back to Alterman, the fact remains that “newspapers are losing advertisers, readers, market value and, in some cases, their sense of mission. . . . The rise of the Internet is making the daily paper look slow and unresponsive; and Craigslist is wiping out classified advertising,” he says.
The immediacy of “clicking on” to breaking news and receiving in the bargain the public’s reaction to it, as well as gossipy, celebrity-laden commentary is too tempting to be ignored. Good national and local newspapers and public broadcasting news programs such as the Lehrer Report and the BBC have a much more deliberate editorial process with numerous reporters and journalists in the field checking and rechecking their sources and accuracy.
The Blogosphere may come to be considered the very hallmark of democracy. Every man has a voice. Dewey may have been happy to see it; Lippman would surely be reeling in his grave. Cable news programs even have their assigned Blog readers who screen and excerpt for the viewer what they consider most newsworthy, catchy or amusing.
Admittedly, sometimes even the elitist Public Broadcasting System and The New York Times get it wrong and occasionally the bloggers uncover a truly newsworthy story — the murky story of the firing of the U.S. attorneys, the The New York Times’ Judith Miller’s gullibility in the run-up to the Iraq War, and Dan Rather’s “dubious documents allegedly showing that George Bush had received special treatment during his service in the Texas National Guard,” to name a few. Froma Harrop, writing on April 5 in this paper, faults both PBS’ NewsHour and The New York Times for buying into an Obama-generated campaign to declare Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances all but dead.
Picking and choosing
This paper strives to balance the wants and needs of its various readers. In his Editor’s Notes on March 2 and April 6, Tom Woodman, invites “real live people to write about topics of general public interest. . . . They don’t need to be heavyweight policy wonks.” He speaks about the regular polls the Gazette conducts “allowing readers to weigh in on questions weighty and whimsical, . . . not scientific, . . . just a fun way for folks to be counted,” and tells us that Carl Strock’s “reliably vocal tribe of readers have begun conversing at the Strock Freestyle blog.” As a reader, you may pick and choose between these various offerings. But it occurs to me that if you can read and respond to Strock and others online, why bother to buy the newspaper? The Blogosphere is democratic, I’d agree, but while saving the digital reader money, it’s hard to see how it could help the newspaper’s bottom line.
That’s just my opinion; I haven’t checked my facts. I do, however, love my old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose and wonder what we’ll put under the cat’s and dog’s dish when it’s gone.
Ruth Peterson lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.