Black and White and Dead All Over
By Al Giordano
When I left the commercial media behind in 1996, sixty percent of American citizens still read a newspaper daily.
In thirteen short years that number has dwindled to 30 percent.
Where did all the readers go? We took them with us to the Internet. Chances are, if you're reading these words, you're one of them.
My, how the tables have turned: Many of the same daily newspaper correspondents that not too long ago turned up their noses at us online journalism pioneers, claiming we weren't "real" journalists, now fill my email box daily with their resumes, looking to me and others like me to provide them with work.
In late June, I’ll be addressing the 32nd annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Tucson, Arizona. The title of my talk will be The Authentic Journalism Renaissance: North and South of the Border, and is billed as "observations on how independent journalism is thriving on the Internet and in other parts of the hemisphere even as the daily newspaper industry fades to black,” with thoughts on how “alternative newsweeklies can continue to play an important role in society and survive while many dailies do not, and… some counsel on how they can make that happen.” You just know I'm looking forward to that.
Now that the dirty little secret of the daily newspaper industry’s terminal illness is the subject of Congressional hearings and so much public chatter, let me do some thinking out loud on those themes.
In the past two years, the following daily newspapers have shut their doors: The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the Baltimore Examiner, The Cincinnati Post, The Albuquerque Tribune, The Kentucky Post, among others, reports Newspaper Death Watch, a wonderful little website online newspaper with a masthead that declares: “Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism.”
Meanwhile, others including The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Detroit News/Detroit Free Press, Madison Wisconsin’s Capital Times, and The Christian Science Monitor have shifted much of their operations from newsprint to the Internet.
And now comes the terminal case that has the industry’s panties most in a bunch: The Boston Globe, bought out years ago by The New York Times, is now living month to month. The owners threaten the workers that if they don’t buckle under and do more work for less pay – to the tune of $20 million dollars in cuts to their wages and benefits - the cash cow will be sent to the butcher shop.
My great love for what newspapers once were and ceased to be, plus nine years here at Narco News, along with my own small role in breaking their monopoly on First Amendment protections, informs my vicarious pleasure at watching these bastions of power and hubris fall like leaves off an autumn tree. Society will be a better place when they’re gone. Out with the bath water and good riddance.
I grew up reading a New York Times that no longer exists: Tom Wicker reporting from the Attica prison truthfully and in solidarity with the rebelling inmates, Max Frankel ordering expensive investigations into government wrongdoing, the publication of The Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, and I’ll never regret following music critic John Rockwell down Bleeker Street to The Bowery and through those graffiti-covered doors into the future that we inhabit today.
As one who, last year, finally weaned myself off the New York Times Crossword Puzzle - the last section of the Gray Lady that held my attention - I understand that old habits and routines die hard, and that my crocodile tears for the putrid newspaper industry are not well received by all. There is something familiar and comfortable – like warm apple pie – in opening one’s door in the morning and staining one’s fingers with ink. There was a time when reading the local daily made us feel part of something bigger than ourselves: a community, a city, or a metropolitan area. Newspapers used to be the glue that held communities together. Not so much any more.
This week, there were US Senate hearings at which my old pal John Kerry lamented what I, conversely, cheer: "Today, newspapers look like an endangered species." The publisher of the Dallas Morning News called for government tax breaks and legislation to make web sites pay rent when they link to an online newspaper article. The former Baltimore Sun reporter, now TV producer, David Simon calls us “parasites” that are “slowly killing the host.” Oh, piss off, Mr. Simon. I’ll dance on the grave of your industry’s effing corpse.
Memo to my remaining daily print colleagues and their nostalgia club: Get over it and get over yourselves. It’s not that the Internet is Mr. Wonderful. Much of it mimics the same bad qualities that drove the public away from daily newspapers. You lost the public to us because - there's no nice or sugar-coated way to say it - you guys really suck at what you do. In your arrogance, you established calcified “rules” of “journalism” and false “objectivity” that neutered and spayed all of your reporters, domesticated so they would never again afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted. When you took the honest advocacy out of reporting you emptied it of all passion and reason to exist. It was a nice ride on your profit ledger sheet during the recent decades when you turned your rags into propaganda arms for the wealthy and powerful, but a funny thing happened on the way to the ATM machine: You lost the trust of your readers, half of whom have already given you the finger and pursued alternate routes to inform themselves of current events. And the rest are on the way through the same EXIT sign.
Meanwhile, David Simon’s peewings are hurt. He told the Senate committee: “I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes that American institutions as insulated, self-preserving, and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures, and chief executives can be held to [account] by amateurs, pursuing the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information."
Offended, he is. Offended! And I am laughing out loud that defenders of “American institutions as insulated, self-preserving, and self-justifying” as daily newspapers think they’re anything special or at all different from the institutions that Simon describes. As a beat reporter who has covered hundreds of those city council and school board meetings, legislative sessions, court cases, etcetera, I’ve read just as many stories in the next day’s daily by those with such overrated “compensation, training (and)… sufficient standing to make public officials even care,” and have wondered, again and again, what meeting or hearing (or planet!) those “professionals” had attended because their write-ups didn’t at all reflect the realities that I witnessed and heard at each event.
Simon’s focus on government institutions betrays the real problem with his mindset in an age when the private sector has superceded the powers of the State in so many areas of daily life: Newspapers are corporations and naturally allied with all other profit-motive ventures. They may sometimes report a good story about malfeasance in the private sector, but they will never touch, not even with the petal of a rose, the systemic causes of matters like the current economic crisis because they’re invested in the same mechanisms: stock marketeering, mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, outsourcing, union-busting and unregulated market rules that encourage playing fast-and-loose with the truth.
When I wrote my declaration of independence from commercial media in 1996 – The Medium Is The Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media – oh, how they snickered. Well, who’s laughing now, chumps?
I’ll take a passionate citizen’s reports or blog entries about a city council meeting or a court case over a daily newspaper reporter’s any day of the week because the “rules” that tie those reporters down make them as boring as they are banal and dependent on official sources to spoon feed them the daily spin. Too many bright young journalists have already been destroyed – “boiled and seasoned” with the passion and idealism beaten out of them – by entering daily newspaper staffs. Those that survive, working their way up to editorial and decision-making positions, did so only because they became dysfunctional automaton cogs in the monstrous beast.
The beast is wounded now, limping, and lashing out as it goes down. The sooner the process is completed the quicker that spaces will open up for citizen-journalists to pick up the pieces and carry on the Authentic Journalism Renaissance. We’ve been doing that for nine years now at Narco News, a different kind of daily newspaper, with or without newsprint, that has already supplanted the foreign desks at US dailies throughout the hemisphere. Because once readers have tasted a more authentic truth, they don’t go back to Brand X.
The daily newspaper industry lost this war in less than a decade because it had become, in Simon’s words, an “insulated, self-preserving, and self-justifying” institution. And while they were busy patting themselves on the back up there in their imaginary Olympus, and marginalizing everyone else, a better mousetrap was invented.