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Don't Cry For Disappearing Newspapers

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As more print newspapers and magazines go out of business, there are articles and blogs bemoaning the loss of paper-and-ink journalism. Citizens will not be informed and democracy itself will fall.

Forgive me for being cold-hearted, but all of this bewailing is missing the point.

I think the confusion that is rampant in all of this nostalgia for the old days illustrates a major problem with traditional journalism-- they're confusing the form with the function. The point of news reporting and journalism is not using up tons of paper and ink, it's the content.

In my often-grumpy opinion, the traditional news industry has shot itself in the foot. Repeatedly. I wholeheartedly agree that a democracy requires an active and snoopy press to function; but that's not enough. We need an independent press that is thorough and accurate, and that digs into the unpleasant dark corners. That necessary function has been in decline long before the Internet, and I think that is due to market consolidation. In 1983 50 corporations controlled the majority of news media in the U.S-- radio, TV, and print. In 1992, fewer than 24. in 2004, a half-dozen. Now we might as well worship at shrines to Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom.

Local TV news was the first and most obvious casualty. Nearly all local TV stations lost local, independent ownership years ago. You might have noticed when you travel that the local news in Podunk, Texas is identical to the local news in Backwoods, Oregon. Only the place names are changed. Even the on-air personalities are the same, like they are bred on special farms.

Local radio suffered a very sneaky downfall-- programming is presented as though it is produced locally, but in fact radio stations have been gobbled up by conglomerates and converted into clones of each other. Chances are your local station is staffed only by a technician or two, and all content is beamed in from a remote central location. When the on-air personality adds local color with statements like "It's a beautiful day here in downtown Podunk!" he is lying his head off, because he recorded his show a thousand miles away and has never been in Podunk. Both local radio and TV stations are remote-controlled by media consultants who have never left their special media consultant lairs.

Another big factor in the downfall of the newspaper is Craigslist. Craigslist took away their classified ads, which were major revenue sources.

The other problem with traditional journalism and news reporting is most of it is crap. Publishing warmed-over press releases is not reporting, it's stenography. Collecting random quotes from whoever answers the phone and stitching them into an article is not fair and balanced reporting, it's Scrabble.

I am greatly amused by the horror exhibited by "real professional" journalists at all of these upstart amateur bloggers. Yeah, it sucks to be outperformed by upstart amateurs, doesn't it. Exhibit A: tech reporting. Is there anything worse? Probably, but that's my field of expertise so I know when they're printing rubbish. Which is nearly all of it. To get to the truth you have to read the unwashed bloggers, email lists, and user forums. Traditional news media have failed their readers bigtime when it comes to reporting on high-tech and the computer industry. We can't even get informed, honest product reviews.

The Internet age should make it easier and less costly to publish news. No need for fleets of trucks to roll, or giant printing presses, or massive rolls of newsprint. Why not have both digital online delivery and print-on-demand kiosks? A kid with a laptop and a laser printer could set one up in minutes, would it be so difficult or expensive for grownups to set something up? Pop in a quarter and get your hard copy on the spot. That will take care of impulse purchases and customers who don't want to hassle with printing their own. It will take care of customers who don't own computers or have Internet accounts. Perhaps the newsstand of the future will be a print-on-demand kiosk, with access to more worldwide publications than ever. I think that would be very cool, and a very large step forward.


Media Reform Information Center

FCC commissioner Michael Copps vs. "Big Media"

Sign of the times: Another local radio station gets gobbled up

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