We are as ill-prepared for newspapering’s demise as we were for economic meltdown. An odd comparison, perhaps, because we will recover from economic arrhythmia in relatively short time. Replacing the role of newspapers will take longer, and that threatens democracy.
Newspapers are democracy’s bulwark: constitutionally protected watchdogs. The Founding Fathers knew a free press would sustain democracy so included it among the Constitution’s foremost rights.
The Tucson Citizen’s death and the demise of other newspapers shake the frame upon which democracy sits. Without free-flowing information, the experiment Lincoln defined as “of . . . by . . . for the people” will not endure.
We inherited the right to self-govern, and keeping a check on those who presume to act for us is how we do so. Newspapers are the best at shining light on government.
The Citizen did it for nearly 139 years. Its death and the casting of its fine staff members into the economic diaspora are heartbreaking.
Saying newspapers brought it upon themselves is largely true, but not for the reason you think. Slant – perceived or real – isn’t a factor; newspapers of all political stripe are failing. Business avarice and arrogant resistance to change lead the blame list.
Retrospection hardly seems worthwhile, but please permit a bit of it. In the latter half of my more than three decades in newspapering, we emphasized business rather than news, boastful of being the only business mentioned in the Constitution.
That missed the point, because while newspaper owners made money, their primacy was to inform, watchdog, nurture democratic ideals and drive stakes into the hearts of faulty notions.
We changed for business. Now newspapering’s breathing is shallow and rattling.
New technologies turned newspapering into a piece of glass, dropping it to the ground to shatter. Newspaper bosses tried putting the pieces back together rather than recognizing each piece as a new opportunity. Now it’s too late.
Mass migration to millions of other information forums and the economic implosion are sending newspapers to death row. Don’t count on midnight pardons.
This threatens us because other forums are not yet able to support democracy – that is, self-government – the way newspapers have.
What Tucson TV newsroom, radio station or blogger will consistently watchdog local institutions? Even at its lowest level of staffing, the Citizen had Tucson’s second-largest number of reporters poking into the goings-on of public entities, more than the combined reporting staffs at local TV and radio stations, weekly publications and news blogs.
The Citizen has been part of the framework supporting democracy. Its demise threatens democratic balance, because other media entities don’t have the resources to pick up the slack, at least not yet.
Some say bloggers, tweeters and easy-to-dislike radio and cable talkers already have replaced newspapers. Don’t be deluded. The information frontier is still like the Wild West. Having the loudest opinion is de rigueur; possessing the facts is passé. Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly compete for narcissist of the week; Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann claim the market on fatuousness. They all have local counterparts, peddling exaggerations and distortions without checks or filters.
Millions buy in, affirming another Lincolnism: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time . . . ”
The contract we inherited as free Americans requires us to live up to the rest of his observation: ” . . . but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
The only way we can avoid being fooled is with unfettered, vibrant, believable sources of information. We must insist on them and help rebuild them sooner rather than later.
Michael A. Chihak was editor and publisher of the Tucson Citizen from 2000 to 2008. He now works in San Francisco as a communications consultant to nonprofits.