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The [Wednesday] Papers

I think we can all agree that the entire country needs a civics lesson--from our spineless, spinning, self-absorbed politicians to our greedy corporate chieftains to our ideological and intolerant zealots on all sides of the political spectrum who gum up any chance we have for honest democratic debate about how we will organize society and live our lives.

It's not just young people who are stupid.

But let's talk about newspaper people for a second.

Despite the rhetoric about the role of newspapers in democracy--rhetoric I believe to the depths of my corny heart--most of the newspaper has nothing to do with democracy. If only it did.

Most of the newspaper is ephemera, which isn't to say that isn't important too in a daily account of our cities, states, and nations. It is. But the argument newspaper people make about how important it is to read a newspaper in order to be civic-minded would be a lot stronger if it were more crucial to read a newspaper in order to be civic-minded.

And it would be nice if the media would do a better job of stepping up to the occasion at those times when it is really crucial to do its democratic duty--on the brink of war, for example. No one can seriously argue that newspapers (and the rest of the media) did their job well with the war in Iraq on the horizon. Would those young people who didn't read the papers back then have been made smarter or more stupid by reading the uncritical accounts that passed as news?

The papers also fail in state and local political coverage, which has been dramatically reduced over the years in most shops. Both Chicago metros fail by not covering aldermanic or legislative campaigns, much less in covering the winners once they assume office. My bet is that most of you had no idea who Barack Obama was not only when he was in the legislature but during much of his senate campaign, which he was losing until the final weeks when Blair Hull's divorce papers were released. That's because the newspapers don't cover legislators--even those they will turn around and tout as prospective presidents. (I bet you don't know much about Obama's slim record so far as a senator, either. But reams have been written about whether he should run for president.)

Even the editorial pages offering their endorsements aren't honest, whether it's the Chicago Tribune's hard-and-fast rule of always supporting a Republican for president (or governor) or the shenanigans at the Chicago Sun-Times four years ago, when the entire deliberative process of the editorial board, including interviews with the candidates, was discarded by the imperious publisher and now-convicted felon David Radler.

Newspapers have transformed themselves into consumer entertainment products based on marketing values, abandoning any inherent sense of public service. They provide just enough serious journalism to complete a marketing formula that maintains a bare level of credibility. It's the same formula used by magazines such as Vanity Fair and GQ (and Chicago magazine), which publish what they perceive as one serious piece of journalism each month, amidst a sea of swill that otherwise opposes journalistic values on every page.

So to dismiss young people as a disinterested threat to democracy strikes me as the height of hypocrisy. The "Q" section and "Ask Amy" have nothing to do with democracy, and very little in the news pages does either.

(And it's not just young people who don't know much about their world. Today's front page story in the Tribune about the opening of the Tribune Company-affiliated Freedom Museum reminds us of a poll that seems to show that adults know more about The Simpsons than the five basic freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, though that's kind of a silly comparison. There should be no shame in knowing every last detail of a brilliant show broadcast a zillion times a week in reruns.)

The argument put forth yesterday by Jim Warren and Thomas Geoghegan also sounds a bit much like fretting because young people don't listen to classical music or attend opera much anymore. Thank God for that. Newspapers, in short, don't rock. But they should.

Young people generally do rock, in that they have an enthusiasm for their interests that is more fascinating and sophisticated than newsroom crusties give them credit for. The Internet is a perfect vehicle for them--and for the rest of us.

I'd hate to see newspapers die, or even just settle into a mediocre niche like local radio and TV news, but at the same time it would be nice to see newspaper reporters and editors seize the possibilities of the Internet instead of fearing a future that could--and should--be golden.

It should have been a newspaper company, for example, that invented Craigslist. Newspaper companies owned classified ads. One of the oldest rules in the business book is to be your own competition--better you do it than someone else. So when direct mail advertising burgeoned, the smart newspaper companies stopped fretting and started doing direct mail advertising themselves.

Why didn't newspaper companies invent Google? After all those years of hearing newspaper companies preaching that they were in the information business, not the newspaper business (which was always a deceitful justification for gutting newspaper values anyway; of course they were in the newspaper business. General Motors is in the car and truck business, not the transportation business. They shouldn't save themselves by starting to make Segways or airplanes. Beyond that, newspapers at their core are in the journalism business. But I digress.)

And why didn't blogging come from newspapers? They employed thousands of writers!

And yet, newsrooms today still fear and dismiss the Internet, ceding the territory internally to their marketing departments and externally to tech companies and the "amateurs" whose energy is just what is missing in today's papers.

Metromix is fine, but the Tribune Company could have created Pitchfork.

The Tribune Company's acquistion of Times Mirror was based on a strategy of combining TV stations and newspapers in New York and Los Angeles and other major markets. But Gawker Media created the successful New York/Los Angles/Washington, D.C. axis.

I was once asked by my former editor if I'd rather exist online or in the pages of Chicago magazine. He thought the answer was obvious, and so did I. We each had different answers.

Why would I want to be confined to a limited circulation of mostly vapid, rich people, many of whom would never read my articles, which were mostly about local politics (and have to fight tooth-and-nail each month to get those articles eventually posted on the magazine's Website) when I could be online for the entire world to see if they so chose? Where I could be linked to others and be a part of the public debate old-schoolers like Warren and Geoghegan say they so desperately want (but seem to think will occur if we only make kids take four years of civics courses and read a newspaper collection compiled by school officials)?

The Web is where the action is. That's where democracy is happening. And newspaper editors (and apparently labor lawyers) still don't get it.

I can't even figure out why any aspiring journalist these days would rather be in print than online, living without the ability to include links in stories, as well as accompanying audio, video, photo galleries, and the ability to post original documents or extended interview transcripts, just for starters. The Internet extends journalism. It takes reporting to the next level. A reporter who isn't psyched about the Internet is a reporter not interested enough in doing their job better.

That, I think, is what newspaper companies and Warren and Geoghegan and magazine editors and everyone else who cares should be excited about, rather than purvey the constant drip-drip about how no one wants to read our dreary newspapers anymore.

In turn, the daily printed product now has a chance to evolve into something else as well, as a complement to the breaking news, multimedia, and sophisticated packaging advantages (and obliteration of time and space constraints) of the Web.

Perhaps the daily newspaper becomes a place where the Sunday magazine isn't discarded, but elevated into a local version of The New Yorker. Or a place filled with photos, graphics, and artwork printed on high quality paper. Or a place that publishes a weekly sports review that could appeal both to the casual fan and to those who read sites like Baseball Prospectus. Or a place where science, philosophy, and economics are discussed in a coherent way. Or, most importantly, a place where city neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and organizations are covered in a serious, on-the-ground journalistic way, because the ultimate advantage for a daily newspaper in a Web world is local, local, local--and that doesn't mean the "hyperlocal" coverage of "citizen journalism," or the traditionally weak habits of "community journalism," but conducting with rigor real journalism within the city limits but beyond City Hall.

Maybe only then will newspapers offer a better discourse on civics than an episode of The Simpsons--though that may be setting the bar a bit too high.

Why You Can't Trust the Inter . . . Er, Your Newspaper Criticizing "the Internet" for incorrect reporting is like blaming my TV set for the multitude of errors made by local news broadcasters each day, including those on Tribune Co.-owned stations. The medium shapes the message (I never fully bought into McLuhan), but reporters report and columnists columnize and editors edit and pundits pundit no matter how they technologically deliver their work to readers, and they are responsible, not the technology.

The following correction to Warren and Geoghegan's piece appeared in this morning's Tribune. The irony is almost too rich to comment on. So I just did.

"A Commentary page article Tuesday on newspapers and democracy misquoted Thomas Jefferson. A correct version is: " . . . and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesistate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."

"The quotation is attributed to a letter by Jefferson found in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, according to A Dictionary of Quotations, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

"Also, a photograph that accompanied the article was incorrectly displayed; the visual image was flopped, or reversed. The picture showed a boy reading a newspaper, circa 1940s."


Use the Beachwood Tip Line, which was inspired by Thomas Jefferson, who also said: "I would rather have a Tip Line without newspapers than newspapers without a Tip Line," according to Things Thomas Jefferson Said About The Beachwood Reporter, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.




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Posted on April 5, 2006


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