Newspapers don't matter

Photo By TJ Sullivan
Somewhere in all the muck journalists have been tromping through the past few weeks, The New York Times columnist David Carr has found a saber.

Not that the readers of these pages need to be reminded, but the past week alone has been bad by any measure. We've learned that two once-great newspapers in Detroit (my hometown) are mulling a plan to cease home delivery most days of the week. We learned National Public Radio intends to lay off 64 staffers companywide, most of them here in Los Angeles. And a mere seven days ago the Monday morning bankruptcy bomb was dropped by Los Angeles Times parent Tribune Co.

Tragic as all that sounds, it's nothing compared to the many other layoffs and closures of the past few years, the most recent of which was the announcement by E.W. Scripps Co. that Denver's Rocky Mountain News has been put up for sale. (Does anyone doubt how that's sure to end up? Remember how well the sale of The Albuquerque Tribune went?)

Yet, Carr writes in today's edition of The New York Times that this industry in search of relevance has "found a compelling spokesman" in Democratic Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich.

Blaggy's scandal, Carr says, is justification for the importance of investigative journalism:

The governor said he would withhold financial assistance from the Tribune Company in its effort to sell Wrigley Field unless the newspaper got rid of the editorial writers. “Our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get ’em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support,” he told his chief of staff, John Harris.

Who says the modern American newspaper doesn’t matter?

Not that I'm happy about this, but I'll say it.

Newspapers don't matter. Otherwise people would be reading them.

And, besides that, I'll ask the more important question -- Why wasn't Blaggy calling for the head of a reporter instead of a deputy editorial page editor?

Carr doesn't sidestep any of this. As he points out, "much of the current investigation is being led by the office of the United States attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald," not a newspaper.

Sure, Chicago's skilled journalists were on the story, reporting that the governor’s wife, Patti, rode the real-estate bubble like everyone else and pocketed more than $700,000 in commissions, a lot of it from people doing business with the state, but that's not the scandal.

In the words of Ben Bradlee, "you haven't got it … not good enough," which is in no way intended as a cut on Chicago's talented journalists, but rather an example of the tragic casualties we can all expect as a result of cutbacks industrywide.

Carr highlights that no evidence suggests Tribune cooperated with Blaggy's desire that pink slips be rained down on that deputy editorial editor, but that we even have to wonder about it says more than anything else.

There's an oft-quoted statement by Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell in Carr's piece. It's the one that goes: "I haven’t figured out how to cash in a Pulitzer Prize.

Relevant? What's been most relevant in newspapers for the past decade, at least, has been the struggle to hold onto readers and revenue at any cost. The public service role of journalism has been shorted and continues to dim more each day, so much so that I feel torn each time I'm asked to provide a letter of recommendation for a former student interested in pursuing a graduate degree in journalism.

Newspaper readers — mostly former readers — don't sympathize with this situation, which is why it's bound to get worse before it gets better.

The public is not going look at the Blaggy scandal and slap itself on the forehead in recognition of the threat posed to democracy by shrinking newsrooms. The public is learning everything it cares to know about Blaggy from TV and blogs. Newspapers? You mean those things to which the blogs hyperlink out? Face it, we are losing a generation of readers, and if you doubt how serious that may be, ask a Gen-Xer when they last went to a horse track — now there's a dying industry that's now lost a couple generations.

More newspapers will close and, soon, some journalism schools will close too. And, in the meantime, crooks and liars are getting a lot more comfortable.

As I often tend to quote:

Thomas Jefferson said: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

More scandals will happen. Far more damage to democracy will be done. It's inevitable. The only way the public is going to realize why newspapers matter is when the harm caused by their absence is undeniable.

The reason it's come to this is complicated. No one thing caused it. But, newspapers have to know that they're to blame for a lot of it. They poisoned their own ink wells. They've been so focused on profit for so long that the public no longer sees them as a public service, but rather as just another business.

Can Blaggy change that? Yes. But it's going to take a lot more Blaggys, dozens, in states and counties and cities and everywhere that the watchdog of the print media is no longer on duty.

Ever wonder what the world would have been like if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hadn't uncovered Watergate? I fear we'll learn the answer in the next couple decades.

— TJ Sullivan

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