News & Views from 465 California Street

Why We Need Newspapers

Clint Reilly

Al Gore is deeply concerned that a precipitous decline in reading is an ominous sign for our democracy. His new book, Assault on Reason, is an indictment of democratic government’s growing incapacity to solve big problems. The glacial, twenty-year process of making an obvious crisis like global warming a top national issue is only confirmation to Gore that rational discourse is failing to identify and resolve key social problems and conflicts. At the center of Gore’s critique is a surprising assessment: “Our facility with rational analysis is not what it used to be. The truth is reading and writing don’t play as important a role in how we interact with the world as they used to. Our ability to operate the intricate machinery of self government has always depended, to an under appreciated degree, on a widespread competence and familiarity with printed words.”

One symptom of the former Vice President’s grave concern for the decline of reading and writing in America is the bleeding circulation of daily newspapers across the nation. Here in the Bay Area, newspapers have faced significant drops in subscribers. Younger, educated readers are said to be turning to the Internet for their news. Another rationale is that today’s 24/7 pace is forcing the news consumer to cable television’s ready-when-you-are programming. But these glib rationales ignore key facts. First, statistics are clear that few Americans are reading local news on the Internet. Television news is not the same as the printed word. Local television news is only able to cherry-pick high profile, regional stories. And national television news is a headline service for breaking national and international stories. The hard truth is that a growing cadre of college- educated Americans are less informed on local civic affairs than their high school-educated parents for whom the newspaper was a daily must-read. A slow decline in newspaper readership among younger Americans undermines our democracy.

Marshall McLuhan may have been the foremost media guru of the twentieth century. In 1962, McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy, a book on how the invention of the printing press in the 1450’s by Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized Western Civilization. McLuhan wrote that “Printing from movable type created the public”. The printing press actually made democracy possible by taking knowledge out of the hands of an elite few and making knowledge universally available to the many. This spread of objective information to the masses via books and newspapers ultimately led to the destruction of feudalism and the rise of democracy. There was one more powerful effect. By relocating knowledge from monastic manuscripts to the public square, the rule of reason became the standard for solving problems. The meritocracy of ideas was invented. Today, newspapers record and analyze events to form a daily journal of our democracy. Even after the gossip, inane criticism, erroneous reporting and slanted opinions are sifted out, newspapers remain the only comprehensive record of our life together. This chewed over mass of information, often resembling refuse, ironically becomes the fuel of our democratic society.

The decline of newspaper readership among Americans under 40 threatens to create a generation of civic illiterates who lack the information to make informed choices about the direction of their communities. It is shocking to so often hear educated citizens actually brag that they never, or rarely, read a daily newspaper. To unplug oneself from the news is a sign of sophistication. In another era, such statements would have been a public admission of both ignorance and indolence.

It is shocking that newspapers themselves have not fought back aggressively. America’s daily newspapers need to come together and mount a national campaign calling out the critical importance of newspapers to civic betterment and community involvement. America’s newspapers need to challenge every American to read at least one newspaper every day. Even a product as pure and healthy as Milk needs a GOT MILK campaign.

Comments (1)

  • It may be that mass literacy is merely a hiccup in the oral culture that prevailed for millennia and to which we’re now returning. Certainly, the sharp decline in critical thinking now in evidence on even our most elite university campuses does not bode well for the future of the republic.

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | March 6th, 2008 at 1:53 pm

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