Friday, September 7, 2012

Newspapers need to step up

MSNBC's Chris Hayes, "Getting Past the Fa...
MSNBC's Chris Hayes
 (Photo credit: thecommongoodusa)
One of the best show on television, for anyone who cares about current issues and events, is Up with Chris Hayes, on weekend mornings

I find this young man to be energetic, optimistic, enlightening, and highly intelligent. I've seen more of him lately, what with all the political goings on as we move closer to the November 6 election, which to me translates into hope for the future of journalism. I had feared that our best days were behind us. I find Chris Hayes' the MSNBC contributor whose off-the-cuff analysis in many cases, is downright genius.
I tuned in to UP recently where the discussion, while centering on fact checking spurred by the Paul Ryan speech at the Republican National Convention, morphed into a talk about news media, journalism, one-newspaper markets, and how it all relates to politics. It was a fascinating program. With a guest panel that included various journalists, like Bob Herbert from demos.org. and who also writes a column in the New York Times, the discussion made me feel like I was at home. I wanted to jump into the television to join in; I would have loved to relate my experience, working at a local newspaper that cornered the market in the small town where I lived. With no competition, I wanted to explain how often times I had to fight for a story that didn't follow the deeply-engrained thinking. I usually won, except for twice when the owner pulled a story that he thought to be politically damaging even though it was true. He was a Republican; I was a Democrat. Another one told the truth about a school election. He couldn't afford to harm those people. They were all friends and advertisers.

Small local newspapers with no competition worked when a town was small enough that everybody knew one another. It worked when the local gossip mill was as informed as the morning headline. But when the town started to grow it became a different story. About the time when the townsfolk realized they really should start locking their doors at night, it was also time to bring competition to the news market. But that didn't happen.

"WATCH YOUR LOCAL NEWSPAPER^^" - NAR...
"WATCH YOUR LOCAL NEWSPAPER^^" - NARA - 535653 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Objectivity, which was never the priority anyway, ceased to have a chance. What happens is people are so concerned with the obvious changes in their town that they never even considered the below-the-surface needs that they have come to take for granted--like the lack of objectivity in their newspaper. When they finally did notice, the local newspaper was among so many other pressing problems that it became relegated to bottom rung of the priority ladder. As the town grew, more and more people became subscribers, it certainly not for the news value. Folks kept up with shopping ads, little league scores, and the latest obituaries. They were unaware of how things had always been and they didn't care. Often times, they continued subscribing to the newspapers from where they came from, recognizing that the local newspaper was nothing more than an extension of the good ole boy network that ran the town. The news was completely skewed and self-serving to its owners. As long as the small paper's owners didn't lose business, they didn't feel a need to change policies. The status-quo worked for them.

It never worked for me. I have long said that a lack of objectivity in the local newspaper contributes to the decline of understanding, information, and ultimately the politics of a region. This allows the local leaders to completely take advantage of the public for its own gain. News is force-fed in the form of one-sided opinion and commentary through what was once a valuable resource that exposed such behaviors. Today, they are contributors. The political leanings of the owner of a newspaper has become evident in all his editorial decisions. He has the ability to sway the better part of an entire populace, if they aren't paying attention. 

The problem has only been exacerbated by the economic downturn of the newspaper industry, which further denigrates what newspapers used to be--a trusted source of fact. With the focus shifting from the readership to merely selling advertising, newspapers as we have known them have ceased to exist.

I always believed that the local newspaper, an information and education resource, is the basic form of communication in a community. It must be balanced to cover the community it serves, but with a much broader perspective. If the perspective of editorial content remains too narrow, readers are left uninformed or worst, misinformed.

In the town where I worked, most of the people have a narrow focus, believe and rarely question what their parents and grandparents believed. They go about their daily lives unaware of what they are missing. They are confidant that all is well as they live in a bubble away from all outside influence. That is until something happens to burst that bubble. Where I lived, it was a state-sponsored proposal to build a huge airport, displacing some of the region's best farm fields with concrete and asphalt.

That bubble and its naive sense of well-being makes whole populations completely vulnerable to outside forces that recognize their innocence and take full advantage of it.

It is my hope that newspapers can retain their profitability if they recognize their value is less profit-oriented, and more of a social and education necessity.
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