Monday, December 01, 2008

Journalism's Free Fall

I’m one of a dwindling number who still get a real ink-and-pulp newspaper delivered to the front stoop.

Today’s issue of The Oregonian carried a strange headline over a front-page box. “In today’s paper,” it read vapidly in its totality. The editor’s announcement introduced “changes in how the Monday Oregonian is put together.”

The paper, as it turns out, has been “reorganized…from four news sections into three.”

Sort of. It depends on what you call news.

It has condensed what were, until fairly recently, three news sections into one (containing metro, business and national and world news). Today's stuffed front section also subsumed editorial, which is not news but opinion.

The two other "news" sections are sports (news for the bemused?) and the frequently frothy, puzzled-filled “How We Live.” (Confession: I am an occasional Sudoku wrestler and crossword puzzler.)

The changes mean that, counted by sections, two-thirds of Monday's Oregonian is devoted to entertainment. Newspaper readers are, as the late media sage Neil Postmen once wrote about television viewers, “amusing ourselves to death.”

Monday is considered a "slow" news day. But can the rest of the week be far behind in these perilous times for newspapers.

The death spiral of printed news continues.

And the descent is quickening. AdAge informed readers today via the internet (of course) that newspaper ad revenues in the third quarter were off a record 18.1 percent.

That means less revenue for local reporting and a greater reliance on canned, cheap, syndicated fluff (sports and other entertainment) as well as news services dispatches. (The Pasadena paper recently outsourced its local reporting to India. I kid you not.) The “How We Live” section today featured a stop-the-presses story about Forks, Washington, as a destination site for adolescent female fans of the new vampire film “Twilight.”

What are the consequences of the death of newspapers? Does their death equate to the death of journalism? Just how vital is journalism as we have known it to today's democracy? Can on-line journalism carry the burden? Can democracy survive in a world where running backs are more newsworthy than premiers (or the poor for that matter) and vampire movies are more important than a looming economic depression?

Wherever journalists gather, we ask such questions. The problem is we haven’t found any answers. Which raise another question: Could it be that there are none? That we no longer know what it means to be informed? That technological change has thrown journalism into perpetual free fall?

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