News & Views from 465 California Street

Newspapers & Democracy

Clint Reilly

Several weeks ago the Bay Area newspaper world was rocked by word that the San Francisco Chronicle was laying off 100 editors and reporters. Other papers here and across the nation have announced similar cuts to cope with declining circulation and ad revenues. There are five primary causes cited for the newspaper crisis. First, the ill fated decision by newspapers to allow their news to be cannibalized by free websites such as Yahoo, which provide encyclopedic snapshots of national and international events. Second, the no-win formula adopted by local newspapers to post the entire paper on the Internet without charging for access. Third, the growing trend of sub-forty-year olds not to read newspapers and instead to acquire their news on the web. Fourth, the proliferation of 24-hour cable news channels and other media that provides instantaneous news, which often makes newspaper coverage stale and redundant. Fifth, the structural inability or outright failure of newspapers to effectively compete with other forms of advertising to sell products.

Optimistic newspaper visionaries foresee a future of rich online journalism. Pessimistic commentators predict an inexorable decline, as newspapers confront powerful economic issues that can only lead to extinction. The ability of the Internet to eliminate expensive presses, ink, paper, trucks and distribution systems and deliver the paper directly to a computer screen is viewed as an evolutionary advance that presents a survival of the fittest challenge to newspapers. While newspaper companies like Knight Ridder dive, Internet search engines like Google thrive from superior advantages as an advertising medium. Whatever the reasons for the tectonic forces convulsing newspapers and journalists, the impact on our democracy of fewer reporters and lessened coverage of local, regional and statewide news can only be ominous. Our system of government rests on the shoulders of the informed citizen. Daily newspapers like the Marin Independent Journal, the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times are the first source of information on the many critical issues that are being addressed by local government. Weeklies like the Bay Guardian cover the news with a strong point of view. Regional television news stations such as KPIX or KRON or KGO give only a broad-brush look at the region. In fact, most local television and radio news comes directly from the daily newspaper as star anchors rip a story from the daily newspaper and read it on the air. There is virtually no local news on the Internet that does not derive from a daily newspaper like the Hayward Daily Review, The San Francisco Chronicle or the Vallejo Times-Herald. As newspapers slash reporters, important news stories throughout the Bay Area will be trees falling in a forest. The consequences for what our founding fathers called “the marketplace of ideas” are drastic.

Newspapers perform another critical function in our democracy for citizens. While their power can be abused, our newspaper editorial pages watchdog for the public interest. Leaders abhor the shame of being exposed in public. Editorials spotlight abuse and propose solutions. Editorial boards at our local papers can be think tanks for the common good – disseminating ideas and proposals that stimulate progress and generate reforms. The historic role of newspapers as a surrogate for the people is threatened by retrenchment.

In his new book, Assault on Reason, Al Gore mounts an unrelenting attack on the decline of rational discourse and the fall of the marketplace of ideas in America. Gore writes … “Faith in the power of reason – the belief that citizens can govern themselves .. by logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available…was and remains the central premise of the American democracy. This premise is now under assault.” Gore is sure he knows the culprit. “Today, almost forty-five years have passed since the majority received their news from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers. Reading itself is in decline. The republic of letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television.”

The grim statistics coming out of newspapers should be a warning about the fate of the marketplace of ideas. How will we govern ourselves rationally without the facts that only newspapers currently provide?

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