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The Decline of the Daily Newspaper

By Burton H. Wolfe  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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In San Francisco a daily newspaper that enjoys a virtual monopoly situation, the Chronicle, lost sixty million dollars last year as its circulation declined from a peak of around 750,000 to around 440,000. Its onetime power to influence elections and social policies has been significantly weakened. If the trend continues, the newspaper will become irrelevant.

There are similar developments elsewhere in the U.S., even though the number of morning daily newspapers has increased (the Chronicle is a morning newspaper) over the last 50 years, while the number of afternoon newspapers has decreased. According to a statistical summary of the U.S. daily newspaper industry posted on the internet by the Newspaper Association of America, there were 1,772 daily papers (morning/evening totaled) in 1950; but the number had dropped to 1,456 by 2003.

It is neither the number of newspapers nor their paid circulation figures, however, that is of the most critical relevance to their decline in power and relevance. At one time there were 13 daily newspapers in San Francisco. Though the number had dwindled to two by the end of the last century, those two had exerted more influence on social and political affairs than had the 13 combined, and they were still relied upon for information. Today, however, not only the 300,000 readers who have abandoned the Chronicle, but also a growing number of the remaining readers, have stopped relying on the Chronicle for accurate information and in-depth analysis and have turned instead to the internet, a variety of radio and television stations (but certainly not the major networks which are worse than the newspapers), and specialized periodicals and booksdevoted to truth-seeking. And that is what is happening elsewhere in the U.S.,though not necessarily in all parts of the nation.

The reason for this gradually spreading development begins with the tendency of daily newspaper publishers and editors to resist change. They continue to stick, notwithstanding a few superficial innovations, to their old, mummified ways. At the top of the list is their destructive, absurd insistence on trying to compete with television and internet reporting to provide fast-breaking news. One recent morning, for example, the four lead stories on the front page of the Chronicle had all been reported on television and the internet between 12 and 20 hours before the newspaper hit the streets. On the inside pages were important stories that had not been highlighted on the internet or tv. Instead of using those to hook readers, the editors of the paper stuck to the four stories already reported, though the writers of the stories had practically nothing new to add.

It would seem obvious that the publishers and editors need to change course: to cut more reporters loose from the city and world desks and let them develop stories not appearing elsewhere or, in other words, to switch emphasis from reporting what is breaking to creating news. As I wrote this, there were indications that the publisher and editors of the Chronicle, and some other newspapers, had finally come to realize what they need to do. Though they need to do a lot more of it, there is a bit of encouragement to be found in some staff-generated stories on the front page.

As the editors and publishers remain stuck in their rut, there is an even more insidious development that ought to be of concern to them: they have ceased to have credibility with the most informed segment of the populace. Internet surfers can log onto Web sites such as those of opednews.com, buzzflash.com, truthout.org and Common Dreams, and learn from what is posted on them that the daily newspapers are censoring and distorting what is going on, and that daily newspaper writers are horrendously inaccurate.

The inaccuracy is owing in part to the incessant demand of editors and publishers for speed in getting a story out, and in other part because in this era of specialization the typical newspaper reporter lacks the knowledge necessary to understand what is actually happening. The censorship and distortion result from taboos and the tendency to accept big government and big business propaganda as fact.

If you want to know what Cindy Sheehan is saying about George Bush, for example, you do not rely on your daily newspaper or tv station. You log onto the Web site of an organization that is telling it like it is - such as truthout.org, for my money the most honest, reliable, and comprehensive of all the internet sources for news and analysis. There you learn that Cindy is calling Bush a "lying bastard" and a "murderer" in the midst of accusing him of generating the war on Iraq for the financial gain of his friends in the corporate world. You do not see Cindy's most vituperative accusations in your daily newspaper, which is full of taboos.

So-called "profanity" is one of the taboos. You can read words such as "f*ck" on the internet and hear it spoken in motion picture films. In the daily newspaper it appears as "f___," as though that will hide what the word is. "We do that because this is a family newspaper," they tell you. Meanwhile, all members of the family, even the children, are using the word. It becomes ridiculous and an example, albeit somewhat minor, of what causes members of the public to view much of what they see in the daily newspaper as farcical. The newspapers' unjustified sterilization of actual language shows up especially in the sports pages, the objects of many comments from readers that the reporting is "candy ass" - meaning that the reporters kowtow to celebrity athletes. (One of the athletes says at a news conference, "that mother-fuckin' umpire can kiss my ass," and it shows up in the paper as: "Well, you know, umpires get things wrong sometimes and I happened to disagree with his call." In such ways have they constantly rewritten athletes' comments: notoriously the malapropisms attributed to Yogi Berra.)

On the internet you can find attacks on the growing fanaticism of organized religions as more and more of their members seek to create theocracies, including here in the U.S., and more and more are bent upon committing mass murder. It is arguably the most important story of the present era. But you are getting it in the most subdued manner in the daily newspapers because their publishers and editors prostitute themselves for the religions, no matter how unsupportable and destructive the religions and their followers become.

I do not mean to say it is all owing to cowardliness. Ignorance also is involved. The daily newspaper writers keep on referring to "Christianity" as one religion, whereas in fact it is thousands of different religions, none of which adhere to the precepts attributed to "Jesus Christ" (Joshua the Messiah) in a purported "bible" that is actually thousands of differing versions of scripture. They keep on referring to "Islam" as one religion, whereas in fact it is hundreds of differing religions consisting of sects and/or mosque groups that convert whatever is in the Koran (or Quran) to whatever the imams say it says. They keep referring to people in the Near East, which they inaccurately call the "Mideast," as "Palestinians" - though there is no such person on this earth as a Palestinian. They keep referring to maniacs committing acts of genocide as "suicide bombers," even after they have been advised to look in any dictionary to find out what "suicide" means.

In discussing whether or not there should be profiling to prevent more genocidal acts such as those of 9/11, they use the term "racial profiling," whereas in fact Muslims or Islamists comprise a religious group, not a race, and "Arabs" (and that term also is unsupportable) would comprise a nationality group if there was still an Arabia but now comprise at best a kind of geographic classification, and in either case not a race. (In fact, as many anthropologists are now demonstrating, there is not now and there never has been any such actuality as "race" - and you cannot persuade a newspaper writer or editor to publish that information, either, and I know because I have tried.) In sum, newspaper writers are so often uninformed and downright ignorant that they cannot even manage to get terminology straight, and if you cannot get terminology straight you cannot report anything accurately.

Also in the equation is the loss of character writers such as Ambrose "Bitter" Bierce and H. L. Mencken, who delivered their commentary with a highly individualized flair for disemboweling the absurd and who were not afraid to use a slingshot approach in dealing with the atrocities committed by individuals and entities of great power and wealth.

The daily newspaper writers of today are conformist, timid, dull, and lacking in the kind of character that lures readers. There was a time when many Americans would buy a newspaper just to read character writers such as Don Marquis ("Archy and Mehitabel"), Finley Peter Dunne ("Mister Dooley"), and Will Rogers. Here in San Francisco when columnist Herb Caen was still alive, thousands of denizens would put the Chronicle on their breakfast tables just to read his column (he was so popular that according to sources inside the newspaper industry he took 75,000 readers away from the rival paper when he switched home bases). That is because Caen and other newspaper columnists, such as Charles McCabe and Art Hoppe, were interesting, skilled, amusing, relatively uninhibited writers. The writings of today's newspaper columnists are as dry as dust, and it seems that the publishers and editors want it that way.

If the publishers and editors would turn to some of the talent found on Web sites and in blogs (web logs), if they would develop some character writers and give them their head, that would be one way of attracting readers back to the paper. But they have become so conformist, so fearful, so cowardly, that they will not allow any writer with guts to appear in the paper. Ironically, it is their very fear of offending certain groups and losing readers which is in no insignificant way costing them a greater loss of readers, who are turning to blogs for the most compelling kind of writing and commentary.

Until they get out of their rut, publishers and editors will continue to lose readers to the internet and the liveliest of tv programs. Here in San Francisco, in regard to the growing demise of the Chronicle, some of my friends say that if it finally loses so much readership and money that it folds up "that will be no big loss." I disagree. For all its failings, the Chronicle is important. There is information in it not found elsewhere, and some of its reporters who are clearly dedicated to journalism try hard to inform the public of what is going on, though the problem is that they have to do so within certain limits imposed on them by the publisher and editors (and thus censorship and distortion are often not their fault). If we lose the Chronicle, that will be a tragedy. But unless its publisher and editors change course, we will lose it as it goes the way of other Hearst newspapers that have disappeared. The directors and stockholders of the Hearst Corporation are not going to be willing to keep on losing thousands of readers and 60 million dollars a year; and neither will the owners of other daily newspapers exhibiting signs of decline.

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