In years gone by I read three or four daily papers before the morning was over, and spent more hours scanning publications such as The National Journal and CQ Weekly, as well as watching this new thing, a 24 hour news channel called CNN. The internet, such as it was, gave access to a few data bases and a couple of university libraries. That’s how I kept up on what was going on in my world at that time.
Times have changed. The internet can give us access to news sources almost without limit, and if Wikipedia doesn’t ave an article on something, it’s a good bet no one else does either. Twenty four hour cable news is available on at least five or six easily accessible networks, and what isn’t on t.v. Is on talk radio. What’s more, social media has become the instant manure spreader of anything and everything someone thinks is news. It’s the clothesline, coconut, jungle drum wireless of the world. Some have wondered if major daily papers are dinosaurs that have not yet realized their time has come and gone. Local papers struggle to adapt to a new role not yet defined. Some have given up on print altogether and gone straight digital. Others try to work it both ways. Do they have a future?
I think so. But what is it? By definition, papers have to be written, edited, printed and distributed. It’s a deliberate process, even if printing and distribution is done electronically. Deliberation is good. It makes time for more insightful investigation and reflection – something we need. It is that very element of deliberation that allows them to be aggregators and evaluators of all that undifferentiated screaming for attention newsy mess out there. At the local level they can explore and explain what is important and worthy to know about the life of the community. Let’s face it, cable news has to find something to say every hour of every day. It results in breathless announcements of breaking news about the sensational and trivial, along with in depth blabbering about things they hope to know more about, or wished they knew anything about, but are willing to guess about in order to have something to say. Then they rehash the same stuff with enough minor modifications each time to make it resemble the children’s game of telephone. Moreover, if something sensational happens in your home town, it will be reported to the nation as if it had happened, or could happen, in every home town, which has the effect of raising national anxiety without need or purpose. As for talk radio, it’s become the domain of right wing provocateurs inciting gullible listeners to outrage over whatever they can concoct, the more conspiratorial the better, just because it’s entertaining and profitable, ethical responsibility be damned. For all of that, local gossip networks remain the fastest known form of communication within their limited areas. Ignoring the laws of physics, they operate faster than the speed of light. They also ignore rules of logic and the need to verify anything. Anyone interested in anything any of them have to say can find something on the internet to support their point of view. Who can make sense of it? Someone has said that we are drowning in stuff that looks like information, but having a hard time gaining knowledge or wisdom from it.
That’s where national newspapers come in. We need them to become aggregators and evaluators of what is truly newsworthy, especially as it relates to the well being of our nation and its communities. We need them to become bastions of what used to be called investigative reporting, and sources of soberly informed editorial opinion. For what it’s worth, I try to look at three national papers (digital editions): the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. All three offer superb reporting. The Times and Post tend to have liberal editorial opinions, while the Journal is quite conservative. Yes, a few conservative friends moan about the liberal bias of national media, but considering the breadth of new sources out there, it’s a pretty whiny moan – not worth much. For that matter, they’re simply repeating a mantra they’ve heard ad nauseam on Fox and from talk radio.
Small city local papers, such as our Walla Walla Union Bulletin, have a different role, but one of equal importance. Like the national scene, our area, and probably yours, is overrun with local internet news sources wallowing in a fast moving stream of undifferentiated rumors, announcements, questions, anger, frustration, and semi accurate real time news about unfolding events. The paper’s job is to report on events of significance to the community, having assessed fact from fiction, giving well considered meaning to them. We sometimes make fun of local school and sports reporting, but what could be more important than the news about what our children have accomplished on and off the field? Like most small town papers, it’s understaffed by a parade of journalism newbies aided by a few old pros. Editing bloopers, debatable accuracy, and word limits on articles demanding something more leave it open to constant ridicule. In truth, it is for the most part a reliable source of reasonably well vetted information about what’s going on in the area. Now and then if offers serialized in depth investigative reporting on major issues about which every informed citizen should know. Perhaps its most important function is an editorial page open to letters in abundance from every conceivable point of view. Think of it as a small town Hyde Park in print. Yes, it attracts the usual cast of local crackpots, but even they are voices of discontent that need to be heard because they reflect underlying anxieties felt less passionately by the less vocal who will go to the polls and vote according to what they hope will relieve their anxiousness.
Do papers, national and local, have a future? I think they do. Can they be managed to produce a decent profit for their owners? It remains to be seen.