I recently joined a Facebook "cause" called "Don't Let Newspapers Die" at the behest of a friend I met more than 20 years ago when we were both students in the UW-Madison journalism school and writing articles for the Daily Cardinal.
She went on to work for the Wisconsin State Journal and I didn't, but we both have many reporter friends and associates whose careers and lives have been torn apart by the layoffs, buy-outs, "early retirements" and whatever-you-want-to-call-them job losses at The Capital Times, Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post and elsewhere. Almost every newspaper, it seems, is suffering.
Joining a cause on Facebook is a matter of clicking "yes" and hitting send, but as soon as I joined Don't Let Newspapers Die another friend sent me a message asking me why on earth I would do such an idiotic thing. He is a friend who knows me well enough to know how often I complain about my newspapers' contents.
He has probably heard me wonder why the range of legitimate opinion for most daily newspaper interview sources and op-ed page writers is limited to the center of the Democratic Party leadership base on the left but seemingly unlimited on the right. It doesn't even stop where Ann Coulter's paranoid revenge fantasies begin.
This friend knows that I hold the free press responsible for creating the world of illusion in which most U.S. citizen live when it comes to understanding public policy. People believe taxes in the United States are higher than they have ever been and higher than they are in the rest of the world; that public schools and all government-run programs are loaded with fat and waste; that a significant portion of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center; and that the price of a good or service is determined by the cost of its production. All of this is demonstrably and incontrovertibly false.
I believe newspapers are more to blame for sustaining these falsities than TV, talk radio, cable networks, blogs or any other communication vehicle, because all of these outlets still follow newspapers' leads, albeit selectively. Newspapers are also more to blame than the public relations, marketing or political campaign industries, whose maneuvers and manipulations newspaper reporters and editors knowingly embrace when doing so suits their ends.
Why then, do I want newspapers to live?
Because all of the recent history has shown us that every diminishment of the newspaper has been accompanied by a marked decrease in the number of reporters gathering news and the number of original news articles produced on any given topic.
We are told that newspapers have fallen on hard times because too many people would prefer to get their news from the Internet. Yet when reporters lose their jobs very few of them are finding new jobs for Internet-based publications. Indeed, there might have been more reporters working for online-only news sources 10 years ago than there are now. That was two recessions ago, back before the Internet bubble burst.
When newspapers lay off reporters the reporters find other careers (or no careers) and the newspapers fill their pages and their websites with more of the dreck that can already be found in great overabundance on the Internet, because it can be gathered cheaply with little or no reporting: celebrity gossip, abbreviated Associated Press articles, sports scores, color photos, amateur video, syndicated Bill O'Reilly columns, and so on.
The Internet certainly could do a much better job of covering the news. But all of the evidence we have tells us that it won't. And the only way we currently know of to keep reporters from disappearing is to keep newspapers from dying.