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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Protesting Too Much

I'm not sure I have it in me to read yet another story/obit arguing for the importance of newspapers and singing their swan song. Much as I love journalism and revere newspapers (and, of course, make my living editing one), the decline of print media at this point could pretty much be summed up in a twitter: coulda,woulda,shoulda.
Don't get me wrong. I eat up all these stories: They're dramatic and compelling and, ultimately, really freaking sad.
It's like looking out the window as you drive by the detritus of a car accident, except in this case the car accident is a 20-car-pile-up and instead of driving by you're actually stuck in traffic with nothing else to look at.
But there's something spurious about insisting to people that they understand the importance of newspapers: their intrinsic link to democracy; their watchdog role over government; their connection to community. It reminds me of interviewing blowhards who spend the whole time explaining how humble they are.
Of course, I believe all of it: the democracy, the watchdogging, the community part. But, then again, I'm not the one who needs to be convinced. And, just as it's bad form to write for your sources no matter the beat, newspapers' insistent coverage of their own industry strikes me as slightly problematic. No, it's not a story that can be ignored, but there's a weird disconnective flavor to all of it. How can any journalist write about the decline of newspapers without some level of conflict of interest?
More importantly, what is the public, assuming they have been or can be convinced of the importance of newspapers, supposed do about the problem? Read them? They are reading them. Buy ads? Sure, if they have the money to do so. Sign on to a Day Without the Internet? (Now there's an idea).
I'm not saying I have tackled and solved the question of how to re-envision newspapers (I'll leave that to greater minds than mine), but it does strike that it might be time for someone to generate a To Do List for the newspaper-loving public. Because harping on abstractions (newspapers promote democracy)is about as convincing as making someone eat their vegetables because children elsewhere are starving. Even citing specifics (as journalists are supposed to do) isn't that helpful. We can all cite important stories that sparked change and hypothesize about what might have happened if, instead of column inches, we had to change the world one twitter at a time (God save us all). But that doesn't really change reality.
Maybe there's nothing working journalists really can do, except keep plugging away and producing journalism that shows, rather than tells, the importance of this endeavor. (although as I wrote that last sentence a vision of the musicians on the Titanic popped into my mind; even worse, it was the James Cameron Titanic).