Jul 3, 2008


It's Independence Day eve and I'm blue.

I'm putting a show together for Tuesday about the state of the American newspaper. The news is disheartening, and dangerous. Over 1,000 editorial positions slashed in the last week - the latest, and the deepest, at the Los Angeles Times.

All of this because of a revolution.

Thomas Jefferson had a soft spot in his heart for revolutions. The spot he had for newspapers was nearer the spleen. Yet, he still said this:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Jefferson, of course, was an elitist. And he didn't have access to the Internet. But I think it's safe to say he had patriotic leanings, and a certain affinity for democracy. To his mind, democracy needed stirring from time to time, a task suited to a free press.

Online publishing is making the physical press obsolete. But the word "press" also represents a collective - reporters and editors banded together to monitor institutions, public and private, that have the power and the means to turn we individuals away, ignore our concerns, resist being stirred. That press is under threat. The culprit, despite the citizen journalist's wish to take credit, is an institution.

The crippled and dying newspapers of today may well provide the ground from which a new crop of publications will spring. Destruction may well be necessary for creation. But this revolution needs revolutionaries, and fewer grave dancers.

Anyway, on to more articulate thoughts on this subject from New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, who does not see a savior in the Huffington Post (HuffPo has its own ideas of "free" and "press"):
Yes, the Brentwood bold-face types who grace HuffPo’s home page can afford to work for free, but it’s un-American, to say the least.

Long ago, I was a member of the steelworkers union, and also a longshoreman. If any of those guys on the docks heard that I was now part of a profession that asked people to labor for nothing, they’d laugh in their lunch buckets — then probably shut The Huffington Post down. Doesn’t the “progressive” agenda, much touted on their pages, include a living wage?

We could be left with a national snark brigade, sniping at the remaining dailies in their pajamas, never rubbing shoulders with a cop, a defense attorney or a distressed family in a Red Cross shelter after a flood.

My lament this Fourth of July is to ask readers to see newspapers as not just another casualty in the churn of business. Sure, reporters say stupid things and write idiotic stories. Everyone stumbles. But on its best days, a newspaper is a marvel of style and wit, of small-type discoveries and large-type overstatements, a diary of our deeds.

We may still prove Jefferson’s preference wrong: perhaps a nation can function without newspapers. But it would be a confederacy of dunces.


Mike Rappaport said...

The fault, as Shakespeare said, is not in our stars but in ourselves.

The problem with a free and independent press -- I do not include broadcast journalism, something of an oxymoron -- is that when you subject it to the profit motive, you destroy it.

We need to consider the fact that maybe we should make our newspapers not-for-profit institutions.

Consider this: What other for-profit type business is constitutionally protected?

Anonymous said...

The owners of our newspapers are rapidly making them not-for-profit institutions.

jvolzke said...

I got your revolution ...

Hey Gary -- I think we worked together somewhere, sometime. I was the guy completely devoted to community journalism, and still am.

Me and another guy have three community weeklies in South OC. Are we rolling in cash? No. But one paper was just ranked No. 1 by its community, despite a much older OC Register community "product" in the same city.

Newspaper companies just got too big. Lost touch.

Keep up the good work, and check us out at