Saturday, April 18, 2009

Questioning a Question

“If newspapers die, can democracy survive?”

That was the question the City of Portland put to three journalists on a panel at the club forum Friday. The Governor Hotel ballroom was packed with those eager to hear the answer.

The question was utterly bogus — a blatant tease.

Newspapers as we know them are dying, no “if” about it.

The good news is that journalism is more alive than ever. It’s just taking a different form. You just have to search around a bit to find reporting you can trust.

And sometimes, it results from your own legwork.

If you have the time and desire, you can search for information and report for yourself. It's kind of fun. Let ten million journalists bloom! In the Internet age, Reporting 101 (in academia it’s called “information literacy”) should be required for all high school seniors.

As for the survival of democracy, it was struggling in this country long before Craig’s List and the Internet pulled the financial rug out from under traditional newspapers.

If democracy is so dependent on newspapers, why have newspapers done such a miserable job of exposing the flaws in our democratic system? Everything from big money influence, to our archaic Electoral College, to inane political commercials, to politicized election officials, to hanging chads, to rigged computers, to sound-bite campaigns.

That said, the strongest newspapers will thrive as journalistic institutions on-line. They will be even greater influences than they are in ink on paper. More people will read them on-line. They will still drive the “public awareness” agenda. And the public will enter the discussion and contribute to the reporting.

And as The Oregonian’s Executive Editor Peter Bhatia pointed out Friday, once on-line, the on-line remnants of lesser newspapers will focus on the local and the hyper-local, i.e. Neighborhoods. Once again, calling all citizen reporters!

Finally, the financial structure of the newspaper industry (and American media in general) has always been suspect. Have you ever wondered why the real estate and auto sections of The Oregonian are produced by the advertising department? Or had you noticed?

Once upon a time, independent journalists actually wrote unvarnished critical stories about houses and cars. They happen to be the two most expensive purchases you will make.

No longer. Why? Take a look at the pipers calling the tunes. (Significantly, product reviews are everywhere on the web.)

Why did it take so long for government and the media to catch on to the financial mess we were in? Ever see any credit card ads in the newspaper? Corollary: Do banks contribute to political campaigns?

Why does the Lehrer News Hour not go after the oil industry? Look who sponsors the program.

No, it’s time to push the pause button on the media and take a long, hard look at them and how they are paid for. Study up. Read about press barons and media conglomerates. Check out the role of advertising in our mediated Culture of Debt and Consumption.

“If newspapers die, can democracy survive?”

We might as well ask, “If cows fly, will we invade Sweden?”

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