On the death of newspapers

Ted Rall, whose editorial cartoon is above, notes on his blog that newspapers continue to shrink, as does my city’s daily, the Sacramento Bee. (It’s not just newspapers that are shrinking; rolls of toilet paper, boxes of cereal, containers of ice cream and even cans of tuna also have been part of our incredibly shrinking universe in which under our corporate overlords we get less for more.)

I earned a bachelor of science in print journalism in 1990, and so you would think that I would have weighed in by now on the death of newspapers. (Many have, such as here and here and above.)

But the truth is that I’ve been getting my news and opinion (and porn, but that’s another post…) via the Internet for years now, so the death of newspapers (and other print media) doesn’t exactly keep me up at night.*

And, it seems to me, it’s much more planet friendly to allow the newspapers (the ones actually still printed on newsprint, I mean) to continue to die and to continue the movement of printed media (at least newspapers and magazines and the like) from paper to electronic forms.

As far as practicing journalism (or anything like journalism) goes, I’ve been blogging fairly happily since 2002, finding it wonderful to be able to say whatever the fuck I want to say without an editor or a publisher being able to tell me that I can’t say whatever the fuck I want to say, and without having to worry about whether some advertiser will pull out if I say something that isn’t in line with the status quo — because I don’t have any advertisers or work for an outfit that relies upon advertisers. Nor do I have to worry about any pissed-off readers boycotting me or canceling their subscriptions to my blogging gig — because my blogging gig doesn’t make me jack shit in the first place.

But it’s also true that as a blogger it’s incredibly hard to get a big audience. With each passing year the number of blogs grows and it’s increasingly harder to get a regular readership. And too many of those blogs that do somehow manage to garner large audiences — blogs that aren’t hosted by a pre-existing popular website or owned by a celebrity or the like, I mean — seem to have achieved their status almost by chance or luck or both.

And it sucks that those of us bloggers who have a background in journalism and who know how to write for a large audience have our blogs lumped together with everyone else’s blog. A blog is not a blog.

Blogs have democratized and popularized (as in “made more populist and less corporate”) the media, to be sure, but with so many shitty blogs out there — anyone with minimal computer skills can have a blog for free — why should anyone seek out my blog?

And yes, it does suck royally that I do not get paid to do what I love to do the most.

But hey, that is the fate of the Generation Xer.

When I got my journalism degree in 1990, the first Bush recession was raging and newspapers weren’t hiring; they were laying people off. In order to survive I eventually went into nursing, going so far as to become a registered nurse.

While I don’t regret that I have such a well-rounded education, with a journalism degree and a nursing degree (and with lots of college courses that I took after those two degrees that never went toward a degree, such as paralegal courses), it does suck ass to be a member of what fellow Gen Xer Ted Rall has called the “overeducated underclass.”

All of this education and for fucking what? The baby boomers hold on to all of the plum jobs with death grips, like how ancient U.S. Supreme Court justices pretty much have to die before they ever fucking retire. And everything that the boomers have touched has turned to shit, so of course the newspaper industry has turned to shit, too.

But I digress a little.

I recall a newspaper management class that I took in 1989 or 1990 (a requirement for my journalism degree) in which the instructor and the textbook assured us that newspapers were fiscally secure for decades to come.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

I’m not asserting that anyone really could have known back then how the Internet so radically would change the world, but I remember well those days when the layperson had no access to those Associated Press or Reuters or other news service stories that were not chosen by some editor as fit to print.

“Gatekeepers,” newspaper editors were called then. But the gates since have been flung wide open.  

In retrospect, watching newspapers fold (pun intended) right and left — which I attribute to the explosion of the Internet and to boomer mismanagement (including the boomers’ lack of Internet savvy and foresight on how the Internet would explode) — it doesn’t seem so horrible that my newspaper career crashed and burned right out of the gate. Was I not spared the carnage within the newspaper industry that we see today?

I don’t regret the writing and reasoning skills — as well as the education in politics and government and civics and media law — that I gained from my old days in journalism.

But the hand-wringing over the death of newsprint newspapers is, I think, misguided.

Hand-wringing over willful American ignorance and stupidity — including the fact that many if not most Americans would rather watch “American Idol” or Fox “News” than read anything intelligent — is warranted, but the simple movement of print media from one format (paper) to another (the Internet and other electronic formats) is no cause for alarm. There was a point in history in which the move to paper was a big change in format for written communication.

Content, not format, is king.

It’s fair game to lament the diminishing quality of the content of much if not even most of the mainstream print media. But, content-wise, is there much of a difference between shit that is printed on paper and shit that is available on the Internet? Shit is shit, and at least shit on the Internet saves trees.

Something that those who want to save the newsprint newspapers seem to forget is how capitalism muzzles free speech. Money changes everything, Cyndi Lauper once noted. As soon as big money is involved, free speech goes out the window.

Who owns the big newspapers? Corporations. Are corporations going to want to print things that are significantly anti-corporate? Unfuckinglikely.

No, corporately owned and controlled mainstream media (redundant…) seek to preserve the status quo, because the status quo is what keeps the few (such as Fox “News” owner Rupert Murdoch) filthy rich at the expense of the rest of us.

The argument has been made that readers should pay for Internet news content so that news-gathering apparatuses don’t disappear. News-gathering apparatuses are critically important for a democracy to have, but the wrenching of the national platform from corporate control to non-profit (or at least non-corporate) control is best for changing the status quo for the betterment of the most, it seems to me.

I don’t have an easy answer to the problem that Internet readers have come to expect free content but that writers need a source of income. Online advertising can pull in revenue for the larger Internet operations, but the rest of us little guys are pretty screwed.

But if I had to pick between profits and free speech — truly free speech, not the corporately owned and controlled speech that we call “free” — I’d have to go with the latter.

Newspapers are dying, it’s true, but I know that my daily visits to my local newspaper’s ad-ridden website (sacbee.com) instead of my purchase of the incredibly shrinking newsprint editions of the Sacramento Bee are good for the trees. (I probably can count on one hand [well, no more than on both of my hands, anyway] the number of newsprint copies of the Bee that I buy in a year.) 

And the popularity of blogs and other Internet forums have forced newspapers that have parallel websites to become more populist and democratic and interactive, both on their websites and even within their printed pages.

Gone are the days when information flowed mostly one way, from the “gatekeepers” to the readers who had little choice but to consume whatever the “gatekeepers” funneled their way because the corporately owned and controlled newspapers owned and controlled the public forum.

That can only be good for freedom and democracy, which depend upon a free flow of information, not just information that flows top-down from corporate overlords.

I don’t know. Where it comes to the death of newspapers and the rise of truly free speech on the Internet, I’m too excited about the latter to lament the former that much.

I guess that I’ll just have to have faith that if I continue to do what love, the money one day will follow.

In the meantime, I am keeping my day job…

*Admittedly, I am not so willing to part with books printed on paper, however; I have a sentimental attachment to books that started in my childhood. But I recognize that books printed on paper also are an endangered species.

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