Friday, 24 April 2009

Newspapers: R.I.P.??

As a person whose life includes a career as a journalist (primarily in radio but subsequently free-lance in print), and as an ethicist, I tend to watch the "business" of journalism as well as work in it.

Within the space of two days, I came across two different laments over the deaths of newspapers. One was on long-time friend and excellent journalist Jim Taylor's Weblog, the other on the blog of Mike H, The Life of Writing.
Then French Fancy got into the act, and I read and then got a note from Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. A couple of other journalists added their thoughts to me. Then someone drew my attention to an article in The Atlantic Monthly by Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, about why he blogs (and gets a lot of attention).

So I followed the "3R's" of journalism: research, reflect, (w)rite.

The following is a revised form of something published in The Western Producer. That paper has an on-line version, for which there is a subscription fee.

The changes I have made here reflect some of the on-line wisdom and concern we have been sharing in the blogsphere.

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Newspapers are making news these days -- often by going out of business.

In the U.S., Seattle Post-Intelligncer has quit printing after almost 150 years. Denver’s Rockey Mountain News is gone. The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune are going, going, . . . These are big papers -- like Canada’s National Post or Globe and Mail. Smaller, local or regional papers face similar problems.

This makes me sad. Having been a writer and broadcaster for about 30 years, it’s like seeing your neighbour have to sell his or her farm, or home. Journalists write “the rough draft of history” -- and with a degree in history, I worry about that potential loss of information, to current and future generations. That same loss makes us less aware of what’s happening in the world around us, and could happen to us. It’s hard to make sound ethical judgements in an information vacuum.

What’s happening? The biggest problem is lack of money -- from advertising. It’s basically a case of how many eyeballs (readers) a paper can “deliver” to a potential advertiser, as opposed to what a magazine, or television, or other newspaper can deliver. The problem is not new; but is getting worse. As the economy tightens, and trends shift, so do advertisers wallets. With less money, papers reduce staff and pages. (In fact, a recent report from the Mercury News in San Jose indicated the newspaper industry shed 5,900 "newsroom" jobs last year.) With fewer reporters, research fades, while governments and big corporations “massage” their messages. The quality of news can be “dumbed down,” as reporters are require to crank out stories like sausages from a sausage machine. (The image is not far-fetched; in radio, we had a deadline every hour. Exmoor Jane recounted having five deadlines per day when working for a London paper.) International events are omitted or buried as papers shrink.

As ownership is concentrated (with fewer people owning more newspapers, radio, and television), a kind of editorial “group think” sets in -- so one paper looks like another. Add the trend to make information “entertaining” (“info-tainment” is the technical word).
(French Fancy's dismay about the treatment of Natasha Richardson's death speaks directly to the matter of info-tainment.) I believe that news should be well-written and interesting. But news is news, while Monty Python and American Idol are entertainment.

Eventually, one wonders what one is really getting, and whether it is even worth reading (or bothering with a subscription).

My fear is that the loss of good newspapers will leave us all far less educated, more insulated, and increasingly self-centred. And far less capable of dealing with the challenges and pressures of daily living.

There are, I think, two rays of light in the gloom.

Instead of, or in addition to, print editions, some papers are producing electronic or “on line” editions. As people become more computer oriented, they tend to get their news through computers. Some are exclusively electronic, like B.C.’s The Tyee. Whether this will improve the overall quality of the reporting remains to be seen.

Then, there’s the return of an ancient tradition. Long before print, there were troubadours and minstrels -- poets, singers, performers. As they traveled, they would also carry the news from one place to another.

Those ancients have been replaced by others -- called “bloggers” -- who fulfill the old story-telling function, sharing bits and pieces from here and there. Sometimes professional journalists also blog -- giving a different flavor and context to their work. (There's an
interesting piece in The Atlantic Monthly by Andrew Sullivan about why he blogs.)

Newspapers, journalism, news -- everything seems to be “in process” -- “in transition.” I see it happening, to some extent, every day in the blogsphere (though writing in the blogsphere tends to be self-centred, sometimes to the point of being narcissistic -- though some bloggers provide good information and reflection on important topics). Meanwhile, politicians are trying to harness the blog world for their messages, as are (big) businesses.

But there’ll always be stories to tell, and someone will tell them.

You can trust the ol' Bear on that.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


I've made some changes in how I do my blogging.

When I first set up the blog "The Ethical Pilgrimage," it was in connection with my post-graduate studies in bioethics. When I became chronically ill, my plans to finish my degree evaporated.

Now, that blog is about to do the same (more or less).

I'm going to keep it up in the blogsphere, as a matter of historical record and reference (should I need it, or other people want to see particular items). Thoughts which I would normally have posted there will be found on this site. I will probably be posting here a bit more frequently, though "Chrome on the Range" will still be my primary blog. "Desert Epiphanies" will continue to be the site for more thorough discussion of matters related to spirituality, faith, and church.

Thank you to those who have taken the time to read and follow those few notes on "The Ethical Pilgrimage." If you'll "bear with me," I think you'll find this site to be as noteworthy as that one.