Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Next American Tragedy

I’ve just finished a good book. Two things made this reading experience unusual. Larry Tobin, copublisher of the Tomahawk Leader, is the author of Pressing Matters. I started my journalism career at the Leader 53 years ago, and could relate personally to his tale of a weekly newspaper owner's adventures. Although Tobin spent years writing his first novel, its appearance at this point in history could not have been timelier.

The other half of the publishing team in my northern Wisconsin hometown, Kathy Tobin, recently issued a positive review of my memoir, Days With The Dads: Recollections of a Small-Time Journalist. Reviewers look for a key attribute that differentiates the book under examination from others. Mrs. Tobin said, “Yes, Dick Klade has a knack for remembering the most unusual ordinary moments.” After pondering that observation, I realized it’s a pretty apt description of the tales in my book. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

You may think Mrs. Tobin’s friendly comments influenced my analysis of her husband’s work. I recognized that possibility, and took pains to consider his book objectively. After all, I have no obligation to say anything whatsoever about it, although it served as a springboard to an important forecast.

Two things separate Larry Tobin’s novel from the herd. He builds suspense in a masterful, and quite unusual, way. He gets a reader engrossed in guessing about the outcome of a situation, relieves the tension by giving us the problem’s resolution, and immediately starts building new suspense about another problem. Most novelists build suspense about a single situation, with a grand-climax revelation at the end. Tobin does it differently, and the result is a good read.

Pressing Matters has a central theme—a moral to the story, if you will—running through it. The plot has a small-time newspaper publisher exposing serious corruption involving city officials. The discovery of the wrongdoing doesn’t happen because the publisher is a crusader by nature or stays up nights looking for dirt to dig. It happens just because he and his newspaper are there, and their normal news-gathering work begins to reveal suspicious activities. The big message is that newspapers are vital parts of our society.

To me, that’s a truism that cannot be repeated too often. It has been true since our founding fathers protected newspapers in the first amendment to the constitution. It has been true in big cities where crooked mayors were forced out of office by editorial heat. It has been true in small cities, like De Pere, Wisconsin, where embarrassed city council members threw out the bids for a new police car after I reported improper conduct at the bid opening by the Ford dealer who also was a councilman.

Somebody has to keep an eye on the everyday activities of public servants. When that stops, democracies are doomed. Tobin’s mythical publisher tells us why: “There is an arrogance of power that afflicts not just heads of state—the Napoleons, the Tsars, the Nixons. Whenever authority is unchecked it can be abused at every level of our lives. Some people feel their sense of power—real or imagined—gives them the right to act without consideration for those around them or for the moral effects of their actions.”

Unfortunately, the newspapers big and small that have been there when needed to hold public servants accountable are doomed. Radio didn’t do them in; people couldn’t remember much of what was said. Television didn’t kill them, as many predicted it would; stations made a lot more money airing comedies than presenting news. Free shopping guides didn’t do the deed, although they hurt papers in many localities by siphoning off advertising revenue. Newspapers survived because they could deliver a product to subscribers that the competitors could not match with sound bites and exclusively commercial offerings.

The Internet is what has plunged the daggers into the hearts of newspapers large and small. It can deliver ads, news, and opinions instantly at little or no cost to the “publishers” and with great convenience for the readers. Free want ads available at sites like Craigslist have crippled the lucrative newspaper classified ad business that radio, television, and shopping guides could not destroy.

Growing numbers of young moderns do not subscribe to newspapers, nor do they read them at all. The total number of newspapers in the United States has been declining rapidly for more than a decade; the current economic crisis merely accelerated the mergers and failures. Some of our oldest news institutions are suffering mightily or disappearing.

The owner of the Chicago Tribune, which immodestly called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper” when it was our family paper years ago, was $13 billion dollars in debt in December when he declared bankruptcy. Just as it was about to turn 100, the Christian Science Monitor announced it will stop publishing next month, except for a puny weekly offering, and shift to providing Internet news. The decision was based on rising costs and dwindling circulation.

With the Wall Street Journal on the right and the New York Times on the left, the Monitor occupied the center ground as one of the only newspapers that could be thought of as “national” in the U.S. Its daily editions restricted church news to a small, clearly labeled section. The rest of the paper was considered by most professional journalists to display excellent, objective reporting and some of the best analysis available. The “print bite” approach taken by U.S.A. Today hardly qualifies it as a worthy replacement for the Monitor in the national newspaper arena.

So what? If Americans can get their news and analysis from a flock of TV networks, websites, and blogs, why should we care if newspapers die?

For one thing, we should care because of potential government control of the very organizations who should be watching it. The first amendment is precise about what type of media it protects from control:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press . . . “

When commercial radio appeared, so did the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC regulates the airways by licensing stations, including those used by the rapidly proliferating television networks. Although court decisions have gradually extended first amendment protections to broadcasters, the coverage as yet is not equal to that afforded the print media. It probably never truly will be. Those who assign channels obviously could control what is presented. That is a risk we should not be willing to run.

The great strength of the Internet, total freedom from any control other than feeble attempts by legislators to limit pornography, is its great weakness as a news source. It’s a free for all. Few bloggers have any credentials, and so far the few websites claiming to purvey legitimate news have taken the TV sound bite approach and probably will continue to do so. Some legitimate analysis is presented, but it’s hard to recognize it amid all the junk. Most of the good analysis is merely a repeat of articles from the dwindling number of print media.

When the newspapers are gone, who will cover the local school board meeting? Who will have the training and motivation to cut through red tape and secrecy and get to the bottom of things when an action of a town or county board smells funny? Who will write thoughtful analyses giving us the meaning, not just the fact, of events? Who will document the little things—the births, deaths, business changes, and small tragedies and triumphs—that collectively become the history of our country? We don’t know, and that is sad.

One of the great founders of our nation made the strength of his feelings on the subject clear:

“. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1787.

Mr. Jefferson, the newspapers you saw as necessary in a vibrant democracy are about to disappear from the American scene. That disaster is not many years away. I may not be around to say, “I told you so,” but perhaps those of you who are younger will recall you first read the dire prediction here. I very much regret feeling compelled to make it, but I think a death announcement from a friend is slightly better than one from an enemy.

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