Scary Times for the Press; Scarier Yet Without It
On Memorial Day I stayed with a college friend, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia who has always been keenly attuned to the news. I've known Peter for nearly 40 years, and when Kathy and I visit, we often sit around the breakfast table, reading and discussing the news. But this time something had changed. Peter has cancelled his subscription to the Washington Post. He reads online. So does my cousin Stephanie, who recently cancelled her subscription to The Boston Globe.
I asked both how they think news organizations will be able to provide them with news if no one is willing to pay for it any more. News web sites, I pointed out, lose money. While traditional news organizations have built these sites to maintain their branding, their bottom line gets a little worse each time a paper subscriber cancels and starts reading online. Judging from the free fall in newspaper circulation in this country, neither my friend, my cousin, nor thousands of other Americans are terribly worried about it.
They should be. These are scary times for a free press in America. Not only has the news industry been weakened by declining readership, but its advertising base -- particularly classified ads -- has shiftly sharply to the Web. Some papers are holding on by their finger nails. For example, my old newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News in California, has been taken over by a new publisher known to slash news budgets to increase profits. The Mercury News was part of a Knight Ridder newspaper chain much respected throughout the second half of the 20th century for its investment in quality news. No longer. As of July 1, it will have sold its holdings to the highest bidder (and there weren't many).
With the decline in profits has come a decline in trust (a measure of declining quality perhaps?). A 2005 Pew Research Center poll reported that just 54 percent of Americans in 2004 believed most of what they read, down from 84 percent two decades earlier. Meanwhile, bloggers on right and left attack the traditional news media as too biased, too cautious, or both.
And if the weakened American press doesn't have enough to worry about, the Bush administration is making noise about possibly prosecuting reporters who publish classified information. So far the story is speculative; it hasn't cracked Page 1. But if and when it happens, will anyone care?
I can only hope so. Because whatever their faults -- and there are many -- the news media in this country, and newspapers in particular, currently offer the best hope of sustaining a robust democracy. We have a president who adheres to the law when it suits him. (And often it doesn't, which is obvious in everything from domestic spying by the National Security Agency to the rewriting of the codes of military conduct as they apply to prisoners of war.) We have a Congress, dominated by the president's party, that seems to find its voice only when the FBI raids its Capitol Hill offices. We have a Supreme Court -- a new Supreme Court -- that just yesterday ruled that whistle blowers in public offices are out of luck if their bosses discipline or demote them for making public the failures of their own agencies.
For all its shortcomings, the American news media -- and especially the newspapers that still invest in independent reporting -- are the best ally the public has. I don't mean to be pollyanish. But I think it's time for more Americans -- particularly those concerned about our eroding civil liberties -- to rally around the press instead of throwing spitballs at it while it fades away. By all means, make the news better. Scream and holler when reporters get things wrong. Hold them accountable. But to do that, you've got to read what they write, not just read the kvetchings of bloggers who complain much more than they report.
For my part, I'm going to keep working on my friend Peter and my cousin Stephanie to renew their subscriptions. If you don't buy a newspaper, start doing so. And tell your friends they should, too. Maybe some day soon, news organizations will figure out a way to make money off the Internet. But they haven't yet. And democracy is too valuable to give away for the savings of 50 cents a day.