Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Newspaper Death Watch

I took my Mom to dinner for her birthday last night.  We were both anxiously awaiting the results of the presidential election.  Occasionally we peered around the corner of the dining room to the TV at the bar to see the electoral college count.  We mused about the first time we each voted (in very different decades), and how the way in which we get our information has changed so much.
This morning, I found a website, "Newspaper Death Watch", which chronicles the loss of daily circulation in the top 23 US newspapers.  In the past 6 months, these major newspapers have lost 2% to 13% of their readership, with an average decrease of 6%.  Newspapers in Houston, Newark, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Boston were hit hard.  The venerable Christian Science Monitor announced after a century that it would cease publishing a weekday paper.  TV Guide was sold for a dollar, less than the price of a single copy.  

To paraphrase David Carr of the NY Times in his October 28 column, the tide turned long ago.  Most of us are getting our news online.  It's cheaper, more immediate, more convenient, and saves the forests.  Traffic to newspaper websites is up almost 16% in the third quarter.  So what?  Who cares?  The answer lies not in how the news is delivered but how it is paid for.

More than 90% of a newspaper's revenues come from print ads.  Print ads cost thousands of dollars; online ads may only cost $20 per 1000 customers.  The difference in revenue translates into fewer journalists with tighter deadlines.  Fewer worthy stories will be covered; coverage will lack depth and insight.  Recently one of the speakers at the American Magazine Conference worried that if the trusted news sources vanished the web would become a "cesspool" of useless information.  The quote came from Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google.

The fourth estate seems to be in jeopardy.  It has always been our faithful watchdog exposing corruption, following the beat and sharing well-considered insight.  It remains to be seen how they will reinvent themselves.  But until then, who's going to watch over us?  I am hopeful.  I think people will step up to the plate from unexpected quarters.  Like Roger Ebert, the movie critic, for example, who wrote eloquently about the outcome of the election:

This Land Was Made For You and Me
by Roger Ebert
November 4, 2008

As the mighty tide swept the land on Tuesday night, I was transfixed. As the pundits pondered red states and blue states, projections and exit polls, I was swept with emotion. Not because America was "electing its first Black president." That comes a little late in the day. It was because America was electing the right President.

Our long national nightmare is ending. America will not soon again start a war based on lies and propaganda. We will not torture. We will restore the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of privacy, and habeas corpus. We will enter at last in the struggle against environmental disaster. Our ideas will once again be more powerful than our weapons. During the last eight years, the beacon on the hill flickered out. Now the torch will shine again.

We will bring our troops home, in the right way. Am I against the war? Of course. Do I support our troops? Of course. They were sent to endanger their lives by zealots with occult objectives. More than 4,000 of them have died. Even more lives have been lost by our coalition forces than by our own.

Do I blame George Bush? At the end of the day, I don't know that I really do. I agree with Oliver Stone that Bush never knew he had been misled until it was too late. I blame those who used him as their puppet. The unsmiling men standing in the shadows. On Tuesday the righteous people of America stood up and hammered them down.

Lots of people stayed up late Tuesday night. They listened McCain's gracious, eloquent concession speech. He was a good man at heart, caught up in a perfect storm of history. He had the wrong policies and the wrong campaign. At the end, let me tell you about a hunch I have. In the privacy of the voting booth, I think there is a possibility that Condolezza Rice voted for Obama. Her vote might have had little to do with ideology. She could not stomach the thought of Vice President Palin.

I stayed up late. As I watched, I remembered. In 1968 I was in the streets as a reporter, when the Battle of Grant Park ended eight years of Democratic presidents and opened an era when the Republicans would control the White House for 28 of the next 40 years. "The whole world is watching!" the demonstrators cried, as the image of Chicago was tarnished around the world. On Tuesday night, the world again had its eyes on Grant Park. I saw tens and tens of thousands of citizens with their hearts full, smiling through their tears. As at all of Obama's rallies, our races stood proudly side by side, as it should be. We are finally, finally, beginning to close that terrible chapter of American history

President Obama is not an obsessed or fearful man. He has no grandiose ideological schemes to lure us into disaster. He won because of a factor the pundits never mentioned. He was the grown-up. He has a rational mind, a steady hand, and a first-rate intelligence. But, oh, it will be hard for him. He inherits a wrong war, a disillusioned nation, and a crumbling economy. He may have to be a Depression president.

What gives me hope is that a great idealistic movement rose up to support him. Some say a million and a half volunteers. Millions more donated to his campaign. He won votes that crossed the lines of gender, age, race, ethnicity, geography and political party. He was the right man at a dangerous time. If ever a president was elected by we the people, he is that president.

America was a different place when I grew up under Truman, Eisenhower and, yes, even Nixon. On Tuesday that America remembered itself, and stood up to be counted.

This land is your land,
This land is our land,
From California, to the New York island.
From the redwood forests, to the Gulf Stream waters--
This land was made for you and me.

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