OP-ED: In defense of newspapers

Christopher Dale
Tribune News Service
The Raleigh News & Observer newspaper offices on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 25, 2020. (Dreamstime/TNS)

McClatchy, a group of local newspapers including the Kansas City Star and Miami Herald, recently announced that it is filing for bankruptcy, a move that will end family control of one of the nation’s most prominent newspaper publishers.

As recently as 1992, the total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers topped 60 million. Then the internet happened. By 2018, despite a quarter-century of population growth, newspaper circulation had fallen to less than half that figure.

While online reach for such national outlets as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have grown, digital growth for newspapers as a whole has leveled off. And online banner ads cost less than their print counterparts, a key factor in the 13% decline in newspaper ad revenue from 2017 to 2018 alone.

Double-digit losses year after year simply aren’t sustainable.

The newspaper industry is in such dire straits that a depressing new term, “news desert,” has been coined. The landscape is drying up fast: of the 3,143 counties in the United States, more than 2,000 have no daily newspaper.

News deserts present a civic danger, since the information vacuums they create diminish the public’s ability to hold elected officials and business leaders accountable. Corruption is far easier when no one is looking.

Just as troubling, the steady demise of newspapers has trained us to go online for news. There, we find a feeding frenzy of clickbait with headlines designed to evoke emotional responses per our preconceived notions. Factions outweigh facts. We’ve gone from the news to our news. Everybody has a megaphone, and nobody has a clue.

The resulting truth fracturing has made it impossible to agree upon problems, let alone solve them. Too many people “know” too many things that simply aren’t true, in many cases due to dubious online “news” sites. Social media trolling by the misinformed masses drives ad revenue to Facebook and Twitter rather than media companies that employ actual journalists.

We need to rethink this transformation and once again get news from something that folds rather than scrolls.

Newspapers are a minimalist’s answer to media saturation. Writers are challenged to whittle down word count to fit a predetermined space. Visuals are limited to one or two still frames, while advertisements remain on the periphery of the page. There are no mid-story lures to similar headlines, and any updates to the news item at hand will not occur until tomorrow at the earliest — a curb on the obsessive, unnecessary informational more-ism instilled in us online.

It is, quite simply, a saner way to consume information. Without a share button and comment thread to hastily tap away on, we are forced to consider the content without the filter of a public reaction. And without boldface clickbait or pinging competing apps, information can be thoughtfully reflected upon rather than immediately drowned by the next shiny object.

Do newspapers also have biases? Of course they do. But newspapers also have straightforward reporting with verifiable facts, with editorializing primarily segregated into specialized departments.

Online, we have broader choices, but we are siloing ourselves to death. We have micro-fragmented our news consumption to where only a few organizations can afford to deliver in-depth reporting.

The time is now to rediscover newspapers, before it’s too late to revive both the publishing industry and societal sanity. A rebound in the former’s fortunes can only help improve the latter’s collective intelligence, thoughtfulness and civility.

— Christopher Dale of Little Falls, N.J., writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.