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The plight of mainstream newspapers


Fraser Smith Big

Let us begin today with a Mark Twain moment:

News of his death, he famously said, had been greatly exaggerated. One of  his best lines.

In honor of newspapers’ contributions to our democracy, we will call the news of their death premature. (You are, after all, reading a newspaper at this moment.)

Impending death? Closer to the truth.

Near-death experiences, of course, are not unheard of.

And, you may be thinking, aren’t The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal doing famously? Yes and no. We can thank Trump for a panic surge in subscribers. Last December brought one of the best sign-up days in newspaper history.

Inquiring minds (they’re  out there) wanted the best possible accounts of Donald Trump in the White House. And they are getting what they wanted despite the “fake news” lie.

Wonderful. But the surge won’t be enough to give us the informed citizenry we need. Smaller papers, hundreds of them, continue to go under.

And this is the problem. I am guessing we don’t have enough rich benefactors to save the smaller papers. They are  the capillaries of the body politic.

Listen to Robert McChesney, newspaper critic and voice in the wilderness.

“The loss of the middle-tier papers in my view is a public health, a mental health problem. The collapse of paid journalism is, in terms of government, equivalent to climate change and the future of our country.  No credible self-government survives without independent, competitive paid journalists battling to cover their community.”

Automation and the web have put us at terminal risk. The news travels now at the press of a button. The massively industrial newspaper system can’t compete. A death notice is premature, but speculation about the future is not.

Everyone must know by now that the American newspaper as we have known it is on life support. Scores of individual papers have succumbed since the year 2000. More than 275,000 newspaper jobs have been lost in that period of time. Many survivors are skeleton-like survivors.

 ‘Bang them out’

All the old fiercely proud trade unions — the typesetters, the linotype operators, the stereographers, the pressmen —  are dead or defunct.

In the good old days, when a member of these organizations retired, their comrades would “bang them out:” metal measuring sticks would be hammered at heavy makeup tables. A frightening clamour would arise in the composing room — the place where the pages were formed and sent to the presses. A fitting tribute now, representing the departed thousands , would be deafening.

Electronic digits have, for the most part, replaced ink on paper. Publishers have tried to survive by keeping one foot on the old print platform, the other on the internet, hoping to earn enough between the two to survive financially.

Surviving artistically or in qualifying for the newspaper franchise, is another question. For the print newspaper as product, there’s no coming back, no recovery, no rebirth. With the arrival of push-button publishing, a beautiful old-style newspaper will seem prehistoric.

We are observing, not just the death throes of a delivery system, but of democracy. Overly dramatic? I hope so. But don’t tell me there’s no indication already of an uninformed electorate.

 Shrinking away

If you’re a subscriber, you know I’m right.

Out in the morning to retrieve your paper it floats up into your hand (you know what I mean). You don’t have to bend over. The newshole — a newspaper term for space — shrinks noticeably. The newspaper withers away in width and breath and weight — and content (a new word for news).

It’s not just the wholesale loss of newspapers. It’s the loss of space to print the news in the papers that hang on. The concerned citizen has less information to work with.

The late reporter turned media critic, Ben Bagdikian mourned the loss of papers to monopolization in the media years ago. He warned that fewer and fewer independent sources would mean less and less clear understanding of what happens in the world.

He had a theory:  Teaching on a societal level demands a mass media that functions well with many platforms — newspapers, TV, radio, social media, etc. Important information needs to flow via many clarifying streams before people “get it,” as they say. Some of us may think a recent national election offers an example of the Bagdikian insight.

In the face of startling new technology, brave publishers promise to do more with less. It’s not possible. It’s an unforgivable PR lie. Unforgivable, because the profit and commercial viability are not the victims. Citizenship, government and democracy star in that role.

Fake it until you make it? They’re not going to make it, and they know it. And we should know it.

More next week in my last regular column for The Daily Record.

C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at [email protected].

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