My editorial betters — just about everyone I know with newspaper experience — have taught me this cardinal principal: Don’t bury the lede. So here it is: High-quality journalism, small community and national, print and digital, is under grave and possibly terminal assault. The various dramas of last week’s “Trump Show” news cycle, bizarre as always these days, may have obscured one more wave of bad news needing attention: layoffs, closures, staff cuts, and consolidation by print and digital publishers Gannett, Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed, all further hollowing out the ability of the country’s news media to do their part in sustaining an informed democratic society.
Media outlets, including small, independent, community ones, are taking a beating on several quarters. Perhaps worst for the conglomerate-owned and highly leveraged newspapers: Rapacious hedge fund ownership is stripping operating budgets bare so as to pay off enormous debt, while also yielding unreasonable profits for investors on the way to bankruptcy or a fire sale. For those escaping that fate, newspapers still face an overwhelming assault by multibillion-dollar social media outlets that aggregate audiences and sell them to advertisers without having to do much actual, well, reporting. And overlaying it all, the news media faces a nihilistic and menacing political environment in which this essential democratic pillar is gleefully gutted and left by the side of the road to die, to be replaced by glib and dumb entertainment and propaganda.
The consequences? More than 165 American newspapers have closed in the past 10 years, and newsroom jobs have declined by about 25 percent in the same period. Business school case studies will make this a poster child for disruption, focusing on the failure of the industry to remain “relevant.” Sadly, the resulting grave consequence for informed democracy won’t likely make the syllabus.
If the unfettered, independent journalism beast is successfully starved by the hedge fund managers, or by the sticky, empty, cotton-candy web, or by the hucksters and purveyors of state-sponsored ignorance and prejudice, the consequences will be horrific. We will effectively lose the fourth branch of our government, the constitutionally empowered watchdog entrusted by the framers with the task of assuring that the governed — we the people — have the information we need to give informed consent to our agents — the politicians — or else to turn them out. As historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt (who knew a thing or two about self-regarding autocrats) put it, “What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed.”
Throughout the 20th century, notwithstanding major stumbles and failures, a steadfast American press did essential work, illuminating complicated wars, bearing witness to our monumental civil rights struggle, seeing us through a plague of assassinations, chronicling wrenching cultural upheaval and helping to bring down a crooked president and end an immoral war. Through all of this we citizens were the beneficiaries of brave reporting and opinion pieces, of words and images of startling impact and importance. And wow, were we spoiled.
Locally, dogged reporting has revealed improprieties in town police departments, has highlighted blight in downtown Oak Bluffs that moved residents to create profound change, has followed the Steamship Authority’s obvious failures and dug deep to find the ones we don’t see (but need to know about) on our trips back and forth to the mainland. If local newspapers can no longer afford reporters to investigate and report (and editors and designers to produce), who will alert citizens to bloated budgets or sneaky selectmen? Who will carefully lay out the variables in something as close to home (but complicated) as the recent high school “turf war”? Who will ask the important questions of those who govern, tax, and arrest us? And who will maintain the pressure when they fail to answer?
The threat now, and the stakes, couldn’t be greater: A free, independent, and adequately resourced press — from national and regional powerhouses to local daily and weekly community chronicles of civic life and keepers of the civic spotlight — is circling the drain. And nothing except active individual intervention, a sea change in habit on the part of citizens and readers, and a willingness to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, will slow it down or stop it.
If we demand high-quality content, the next step is to give up the foolish idea that “content wants to be free.” No one can actually believe that in-depth, accurate, thoroughly reported content is free to produce and consume. It may be free to you if you settle for listicles or stories about aliens or entertainers’ dalliances, or if you’re willing trade your identity for the privilege of having your phone say hello and call you by your name. We all know it’s a sucker’s game — so, don’t do it.
So, what to do? Actually much of it can be simple changes in habit rather than radical departures. First of all, read and watch critically. If we all consume content carefully, just for this part of our cerebral diet, we’ll be able to differentiate the meaningful from the merely entertaining, or the bias-confirming. And if we do that, we’ll increasingly insist on high-value content.
This means paying for real journalism by subscribing and advertising (newspaper readers have always been subsidized by advertisers, until recently by as much as 80 percent and more). In exchange for newspapers and the media aggregating and then giving access to the audience advertisers want, merchants, service providers, public agencies, and private institutions need to continue to pay newspapers and other news venues.
This isn’t philanthropy; it helps maintain a fundamental pillar of our democracy — that’s a great deal.