Guest column: Who needs newspapers?
A social need;
If we could trust,
The stuff we read.
The concept of the daily newspaper now seems a tad quaint, at least for today's computer-obsessed readers. Many marketers have had to create other channels for their advertising, and chintzy readers find they no longer need to plunk down 50 cents to learn what's going on in the world. They simply scan most everything on the Internet for free.
This may not be all to the bad. Newspapers have always been a notoriously suspect source of information, at least on important issues. They tend to reflect the financial and ideological interests of their owners, who more often than not support U.S. invasions, deregulation of corporations, undermining of unions, free trade, and segregation of the populace into rich and poor.
On the plus side, they do produce a lot of copy: Sports, crime, crosswords, weddings, sales, obits, classifieds, weather, hearings, club news, entertainment, dog shows, and all the basic flow of life. One day we'll miss that convenience, especially since, unlike TV, you can put the paper down and go back to pick up where you left off.
So fortunately the industry will not totally die. Lots of advertising does not lend itself to TV or Internet. Thus small papers are likely to keep going for a long time based mostly on retail trade, and new weeklies are already popping up to fill empty geographic niches. At the same time, a few non-profit foundations are testing the waters of investigative reporting. The idea is to produce unbiased national coverage available to any paper that wants it. Now that's a real plus. Even big newspapers might survive with some of that research overhead removed.
For serious journalistic progress though, ownership of those big outfits would also have to change, preferably switching into non-profit status along with the reporting. Our nation is not currently strengthened by having its published news strained through the personal filters of Rupert Murdoch, the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, the Zells, Sun Myung Moon or other big-time wheeler-dealers. It's this corporate press as much as government that has gotten America lured into overblown hostility toward Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, and others. Equally damaging is our media-fostered support of shady allies like Colombia, Georgia, Israel, Honduras, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia.
Of course, there would be risks in non-profit journalism too. Not all operators are as commendable as the "Christian Science Monitor" or the Poynter Institute (owner of the "St. Petersburg Times"). Suppose the Heritage Foundation or American Enterprise Institute decided to get into newspaper publishing with their conservative corporate backers. Papers could become a print replica of Fox News.
Meanwhile in Washington other disquieting journalistic trends are accelerating. The slump in staffing at D.C. bureaus of major papers has been matched by a contrasting boom in staffing at specialized newsletters. These feed industry-related info to segments of big business. That's where the money is. Foreign news bureaus have sprouted too.
All these fast-moving changes in the industry will be hard for us readers to accept. We'll have to scan more specialized sources just to keep up. But it may be worth it. The "news" we get off the newsstand on seminal issues like war, health care, labor, economics, etc. is so biased that as a nation we have been led into making some very poor decisions. This present crisis may be our best chance to break free. (And yes, television is worse.)
William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.