The demise of the newspaper
We live in an age of rapid change, especially in the field of communications. And most of that's OK with me.
I wouldn't mind giving up my fax machine. I seldom use it these days. It's been a long time since I wrote a letter; e-mail's so much faster. And I haven't yet, but I'd gladly do away with my land line. Who needs it, as long as you've got a good cell phone?
But here's where I draw the line. Just don't take away my morning paper. That's too high a price to pay. Yet it sure looks like that's where we're heading.
Already this year we've lost the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times have both filed for bankruptcy. The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News canceled home delivery on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The San Francisco Chronicle is expected to fold any day now. And even the mighty New York Times is rumored to be on life support.
"Saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause," Times Executive Editor Bill Keller recently told an audience at Stanford University. Well, I wouldn't go quite that far. Darfur is still a higher priority. But certainly, the demise of the daily newspaper is not something we should quietly accept as the price of living in the 21st century. Free and independent newspapers play too important a role in a democratic society to let them simply disappear.
And don't tell me we don't need newspapers any longer, because we now have the Internet. I'm sorry. I spend most of my day in front of a computer screen. I start the day checking out Huffington Post, Politico, the Drudge Report, Daily Kos, Media Matters and several other Web sites. And not one of them can hold a candle to the morning paper.
First, there's the practical, or tactile, advantage of a newspaper over a computer. You can't read your laptop on the subway. You can't take it with you to the john. You can't clip an article from it and send it to a friend. You can't use it to start a fire or line a bird cage. And did you ever try to wrap a Walleye in a laptop?
And maybe you haven't noticed? But where do most of those Web sites get all their original material? The daily paper. What's their primary source? The daily paper. And when you follow the links to get more information, where do the Web sites send you? The daily paper.
Who's going to do the research? Who's going to put in the time, track down the sources, conduct the interviews, double-check the facts, and do the serious reporting when the journalists who work for the daily papers are gone? Nobody. And we'll all suffer because of it.
One other point. As one who's on the road a lot, I can tell you: The morning paper's about the only thing that distinguishes one big city from another these days. For the most part, all restaurants are part of the same chains. Same with the big department stores. You can't tell a Costco in Tampa from a Costco in Chico. But pick up the Oregonian and you could only be in Portland. Same with the Denver Post, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, or the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. Each one is a unique reflection of its city, its people and its problems.
The imminent demise of the daily newspaper has even alarmed some members of Congress. Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin has introduced legislation to help newspapers survive by restructuring as nonprofits in order to qualify for special tax breaks. Newspapers could still report on all issues, but they would be prohibited from making political endorsements. Subscriptions and advertising revenue would be tax exempt.
Frankly, I hope we don't have to go that far. I'd hate to see all newspapers turn into a print edition of NPR, afraid to take a stand for fear of losing their tax-exempt status. How much better if members of the public would come to the rescue: recognize the importance of their community newspapers, order home delivery, buy it and advertise in it.
But if the free market won't work, then let the government step in. If it's important enough to save General Motors, it's important enough to save the daily paper.