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There's life in the old paper yet
By PHILIP GAILEY, Editor of Editorials
Published November 18, 2007
Don't worry, I'm not going to inflict another column on presidential politics on you during this week of Thanksgiving. And for that, you should be thankful. May I suggest that you also should be thankful for the newspaper you are reading, either in print or online.
As you know, newspapers are on stormy seas these days as they struggle to find their place in a new media landscape dominated by the mighty Internet. It's not just declining ad revenue and circulation and shrinking newsrooms that are ailing the newspaper business. Some of the problems in our often misunderstood and underappreciated craft - such as the erosion in our credibility - are too often of our own making.
I know this is a cliche, but a free and vigorous press, for all of its faults, is vital to a healthy democracy. And I believe most of you understand that, even if you are not a subscriber or regular newspaper reader. Without newspapers, what would become of the kind of public-service journalism we count on to expose wrongdoing and hold our elected leaders accountable?
You say there are plenty of alternatives to newspapers - Google and Yahoo, thousands of Web sites, blogs, radio and cable TV, among others. The last time I looked, Google and Yahoo did not have their own news-gathering staffs. They are in the business of repackaging news, much of it from newspapers, not looking for it behind closed doors and under the rocks.
Without newspapers, who will expose the next Watergate scandal? Or wrongdoing on Capitol Hill? Or the warrantless surveillance of American citizens and other abuses of power?
"More routinely," asks John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, "who will make the checks at City Hall? Who, in cities and towns across America, will go down to the courthouse every day, or to the police station? Who will inspect tens of thousands of politicians who seek to govern? Who, amid America's great din of flackery and cant, will tell us in plain language what's actually going on?"
Newspapers may be ailing, but I don't accept the diagnosis that their condition is terminal. They are struggling to adapt to new technologies that are bringing us a brave new world of communication. Newspapers have come to realize they have no choice but to build a new business model around the technologies that are transforming everything from politics to journalism, from the way we shop to the way we interact with each other. That's the part we haven't figured out yet.
The historic first telegram sent by Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, asked, "What hath God wrought?" I feel that way about the Internet, which is an incredible source of information, much of it raw and unreliable, with worldwide reach. It's also a seductive force, and if we are not careful, it could change the news business for the worse by degrading basic journalistic principles. I worry that the new media will make more noise and shed less light, and that an informed citizenry will perish.
Michael Kinsley, the first editor of Slate.com, wrote: "No one seriously doubts anymore that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business. The uncertainty is whether it will change only the method of delivering the product or will also change the nature of the product. Will people want, in any form, a collection of articles written by professional journalists from a detached and purportedly objective point of view? Or are blogs and podcasts the cutting edge of a new model - more personalized, more interactive, more opinionated, more communal and less objective?"
I'm not sure we know the answer yet, but there is no question that "citizen journalists" and bloggers are here to stay, or that they can make a positive contribution to the flow of information and opinion. They also have shown that they can be a force for polarizing Americans and coarsening our civic dialogue. Digital democracy is not always a pretty sight.
Newspapers face some tough challenges, but spare me this talk about newspapers dying. I know what the death of a newspaper feels like, and believe me, it is a big deal, not only for the reporters and editors but for the community they served. I was a reporter at the Washington Star when it finally succumbed in 1981 to the forces that have fatally strangled most afternoon newspapers in this country. The Washington Post is one of the nation's best newspapers, but the Star's demise after 128 years of publication left a void in the city's political and civic life that will never be completely filled.
I don't know about you, but I can't imagine living in the darkness of a world without newspapers, where citizens are inundated with cheap opinion and starved for news about what's going on around them. So when you sit down for your Thanksgiving dinner, maybe you will count a free press among your blessings.