Letters + Opinion » Media Maven

Dark Ages



In the information infrastructure, newspapers represent the outmoded grid. But if you tear down the grid without having a replacement in place you will find yourself in the dark.

Think about that as we prepare to spend hundreds of billions on infrastructure projects meant to shore up our collapsed economy. We spent $700 billion to save our banks. We will spend tens of billions to save the auto industry. Both are central to our economy.

Not so the hundreds of thousands of workers in the news industry. The newspaper is never the top employer in a town. Its collapse does not create a chain effect on suppliers across the country and world. As the deliverer of bad news, many people might find it a relief to not have it on their doorsteps. So saving the journalism industry from collapse is not part of the Obama agenda.

Maybe it should be. To get a sense of the scope of the problem check out the site http://graphicdesignr.net/papercuts. There you will find an interactive map that plots out the more than 15,000 jobs lost last year. It counts another 2,000 this year. Small papers are shutting down and some very big ones are on the verge.

Now, I won't argue that the government should bail out newspapers. But saving the industry should be part of the national discussion. Because it will be hard to have any national discussion without them.

Newspapers are a thing of the past, no doubt about that. It makes little sense when you have electronic communication to have information go from the mouth of a source to a notepad to a computer to a printing press to a truck to a driveway to a kitchen table, with multiple reporters, photographers, editors, designers and delivery people involved in the process.

But just because you ditch the newsprint doesn't mean that you ditch what's on it. Trucks replaced the stagecoach a long time ago, but that didn't change the need to transport goods from one place to another. And you still needed people to make the goods in the first place.

Last month Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, based in Denver, told its 3,300 workers in California to take a week off without pay. That means that come spring break, you might see some of the reporters at the Times-Standard around town sans notebook. It won't likely be in Starbucks. Most of these people live paycheck to paycheck and one of those paychecks will be half the size they need. In the boom times, owner Dean Singleton didn't hand out hefty bonuses to these workers. But in bad times, they are expected to share in the pain.

Big newspaper chains like Gannett and MediaNews can furlough workers because they count on one thing: That readers won't notice wire copy and barely rewritten press releases filling papers and news sites. People not in the news business think that they can get news for free on the Internet. But most of the news found in blogs, seen on TV or heard on the radio originated from newspaper reporters. Outside of big cities, Associated Press news feeds come off of reporting done by local newspapers. If the local papers go under, the feed from that region disappears. The news you will get for free over the Internet will be straight out of the mouth of corporate public relations people and politicians. Or you will find so many different takes on a happening that you won't know what the heck is really going on.

As a country we need to start valuing information products as highly as we do other goods and the information economy as central to our larger economy.

Long term, I'm bullish about the news industry. In 1990, I found myself without a job in a dismal job market. By 1998, there were so many jobs for reporters, people were getting bonuses just for finding job candidates. In upturns people are hungry for information and willing to pay for it. When the economy swings back round, that will happen again. But we need information in a downturn just as much, if not more so, than in boom times.

Everyone seems to be looking at Barack Obama to solve all of our problems. But he and other policymakers won't solve problems few people know about. That's where news organizations come in. In one of his first acts, Obama ordered the CIA to close its secret prisons overseas. But the only reason the prisons became a campaign issue in the first place was because the New York Times exposed them.

Ask yourself: Regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats control Congress or the presidency, do you want a government unchecked by the press?

Here in Humboldt, we all seem to complain about the quality of our local newspapers. But without the hard-working reporters at the Times-Standard, Arcata Eye, Humboldt Beacon and North Coast Journal sitting in on boring court hearings and council and commission meetings, spending countless hours on the phone tracking down business people to get tedious information needed to inform readers about new business developments and patiently spending time with families to let us know what is happening in our schools and neighborhoods, we wouldn't have a clue as to what's happening in our small, isolated world. Try finding people who you can trust to do that for free.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, of all people, seems to be the only politician connecting the health of the news industry to the health of California. KCBS in San Francisco quoted him speaking to a recent press gathering: "It saddens me when I hear that the newspapers have to lay off writers because I think we need the writers, they are important," said Schwarzenegger. "The more coverage all these different subjects get, the better it is for the people of California."

It could be worse. Singleton could shut down the Times-Standard, and the 49 other papers in the state that he owns, altogether. I doubt the T-S makes any money for him. The Arcata Eye and North Coast Journal, under local ownership, also fight for their survival. Tomorrow when you pick up a paper imagine the county without them.

Workers in all industries are losing their jobs. Only you won't know about any of that if the journalists go.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.

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