Q: Should we mourn the decline of daily newspapers?

A: Much hullabaloo continues to be made recently about the demise of major newspapers, most recently the New Orleans paper.  In San Antonio, our daily has been without an editor for much of the recent past.  I know no one under 60 who reads our paper on a regular basis.  Those that do take our paper, seem to do so just for the advertisements.  The paper has continued to shrink and now is a few locally produced articles in between advertisements for collectibles and hearing aids.

I visited with a reporter for our paper who said s/he was (a) disenfranchised by newspaper reporting and (b) looking to get out of it and (c) believed that a strong local papers are essential to a democracy.  It’s the only way to ensure that voters are intelligent and educated about issues and able to make good decisions at the ballot box, s/he said.

Now, I don’t start arguments at parties but this view of the importance of the newspaper seems just wrong to me.  Newspapers seem to me to be a thing whose time has passed, especially where an informed electorate is desired.  Why?

  • They’re slow & inefficient: When Twitter+email+Facebook exist, it’s stupid to wait an entire day to get information.  Why should we have to get our information late because the delivery vehicle is 400-year old technology?  The other part of newspapers: they print even if there’s no news at all.  Why does the train leave every day even if there’s no freight at all?

  • Self-important:  History abounds of newspapers themselves manufacturing news.  In more modern times, news teams have developed a sense of a “higher calling” where they’re the true defenders of democracy and arbiters of truth.  The worst offenders are the Editorial Board of a paper.  These folks anonymously include opinions in the editorial section of the paper though amazingly those editorials never manage to criticize big car dealers, Wal-Mart or sprawl (i.e. big advertisers).  I realize that you’re underpaid, overworked and have thousands of dollars of journalism school debt, but what makes you qualified to write anonymous opinion pieces?

  • Skewed:  I’ve dealt with numerous reporters who are barely literate, just scrambling to copy press releases into their articles and not in a position to really take positions that go against their advertisers.  So, if you have an underpaid recent grad who’s focus is just on composing sentences sent to cover an event, do you think s/he’s going to be able to read between the lines on political statements?  Ask hard questions?  Filter that information to us?  No.  Why should we learn information indirectly?  Here’s a great example:  My best feeds on twitter are from direct sources.  The best reporting in San Antonio is being done by focused, all-star teams of reporters who research, interview and report.  (Caveat: there are good, smart caring people at the major papers.  My point is just too many Not Good people are writing these days.)

  • The forgotten role of the press:  We “pay” newspapers to dig into issues and get scoops to share with the public.  Does this really happen any more in a fashion that benefits the public?  When did the San Antonio paper last find any great scandal, data point, or event that wasn’t covered by blogs?  Jeanne Jakle (I’m sure she’s really nice) is adding little in terms of an informed electorate with stories like these.

  • Not-Green: Every day in downtown San Antonio, giant presses spin up and spew semi-toxic ink onto paper that’s been boiled and chemically processed.  Paper route folks deliver the papers in antiquated 1980s-era beaters.  Unread, unbought newspapers at my grocery store are a common Sunday evening sight.  Not exactly environmentally friendly.  

  • Monopolists:  As a customer of newspapers, their monopolistic pricing strategies were a de facto tax on businesses for nearly 100 years.  The news, ultimately, is about fililng the gaps between ads on the pages.  While it may seem childish to hope for the worst for an industry that has succeeded while charging the highest prices possible, it’s easy to feel a bit of schadenfreude.

So, yes, I don’t understand the desire to keep around the newspapers.  Are they essential to democracy?  A benefit to society?  Good for the community or economy?    Given the limitations and history associated with newspapering, it’s difficult to imagine they’re any big loss.

Michael Girdley