I dropped my Wall Street Journal subscription two weeks ago, the same day the Atlantic showed up in my mailbox with a cover story on “Who Killed America’s Newspapers?” I was feeling too guilty that day to read the article.
The WSJ will survive my cancellation. It is one of the most thriving newspapers in the country.
But still, I hated to let them go. They are one of the few conservative publications in the country that offers more than just opinion: they feature objective news and helpful features on culture. But they raised their online subscription to nearly $500 (per year), and the conservative inside me thought that was a bit too pricey. I can go to the local library and catch up on everything they print.
On the whole, newspapers in America are definitely in decline. More than 2100 of them have been killed off since 2004, including over 700 daily papers. Something is killing them. They have lost income because of decreased circulation and advertising. Nearly every paper in the country has laid off reporters and editors, especially local papers. The products they sell us are often not worth our time to read. It not only makes me sad (for I love newspapers) but it also undermines democracy, lets the powerful get away with murder, and leaves all of us more vulnerable to tribalism and narrow-mindedness.
Up until the sixth grade, I used to ignore newspapers. But that was the year I got a paper route and fell in love with them. My brother and I delivered the afternoon Decatur Review to about 70 customers in Dalton City, Illinois. We’d assemble the four sections of the newspaper, roll them up and put rubber bands on them, load them into our bike baskets, and get them to our customers in a timely manner. The huge Sunday paper had to be assembled and delivered to people’s porches by 6:30 a.m. People paid 45 cents a week for this 7-day a week product. It got me to wondering what the big deal was.
You don’t have to read everything in the newspaper in order to get a good exposure to the variety found in our both our neighbors and in our wider world. The newspapers gave me my first lessons in how the other half lives. The headlines alone broadened my world.
Newspapers used to tell us who was born, who graduated, who got arrested, who got engaged, who got married, who got divorced, who had an anniversary, and who died. When they wrote of tragedies and injustices, they created empathy among us. Newspapers included more good news than bad: by telling us who made the honor roll, who got promoted at work, who volunteered to lead the United Way, who started a new business… They stimulated our curiosity (our nosiness?) about celebrities (big city newspapers) and the people next door (small town newspapers.) Newspaper photos helped us visualize people and places and strengthened our connections to each other. You could find bargains in the classifieds or the advertisements. Good newspapers kept the powerful on edge, making sure the people who ran things stayed somewhat honest, lest they be investigated. Newspapers made us laugh through their editorial cartoons and comic strips. They predicted the weather and told us our horoscopes. They informed us of scientific discoveries, stock markets, and foreign events. Their health sections risked making hypochondriacs of us all. The last page challenged us with crossword puzzles and number games. We were exposed to opinions and pontifications. You could check for daily advise on your love life or on how to handle a lousy mother-in-law. The daily paper featured recipes, movie times, TV guides, theater and restaurant reviews, and local sports coverage. Papers also included all the major national sports, complete with columns of statistics. No one could escape their supervision: school boards, prosecuting attorneys, judges, mayors, pastors, police officers…
Newspapers were filled with things you weren’t interested in, and that’s precisely what made them so valuable. In searching for the 15 minutes of reading material you wanted, you had to pass by the rest of the world. You were forced to notice that the sun didn’t revolve around your interests and opinions. No algorithms shielded you from the diversity of life all around you. You were seduced into learning more than you wanted. And if you spent any time at all exploring different things in the paper, you became a smarter and more interesting person. The fact is, every one of my best friends in life has been an avid reader of newspapers.
I was so smitten by newspapers that in both grade school and Jr. High I started a class newspaper. I became editor of my high school newspaper. In my senior year I became a stringer (part time, freelance reporter) for the Sterling Gazette. Throughout my junior and senior years in high school I bought a copy of the Chicago Daily news each day to read up on the current events and the sports. And I devoured every column Mike Royko and Sydney Harris wrote. To this day, Royko remains the biggest influence on me as a writer, and Harris an instrumental shaper of my political ethics. When I started college, my first declared major was journalism. Outside of the Bible and my fat dictionary, nothing is more important to me than the newspaper.
Of course, newspapers have never been perfect. There has always been some screwing up of facts and sloppy reporting. There has always been political, economic, racial, and gender bias. No newspaper can contain all the news, and sometimes the news that got left out was the most important. But for the most part, you used to be able to put together a cocktail of local and national newspapers and get a good picture of things.
What’s killing newspapers then? It’s not all that simple. They lost customers which caused them to lose money. Craig’s List provided people free advertising, and within a decade newspapers cumulatively lost $5 billion in revenue. Corporations bought out many newspapers that were once locally owned. The corporate mission was to make money, not promote integrity in journalism. The corporation trumped the community. Reporters were laid off. Newspapers became much thinner, emaciated even.
But it is more than just financial. The habits of the public changed. Time once devoted to newspapers got diverted into TV, internet, Facebook, unlimited phone calls and texting… Cable TV and deregulation of radio resulted in an exploding number of TV and radio stations, permitting niche broadcasting. You can settle into a web page, cable network, or radio station that will never expose you to different kinds of interests, thoughts, or ideals; they will only feed your mind with what you already like or know. We are spending more and more time getting information and news, and yet we are learning less about the world than we have ever known.
Our electronic lifestyle has kept us up too late at night and absorbed too much of our time during the day. It is estimated that 77% of all Americans have a smartphone, and we average checking it 58 times a day. Most people now get their news, not from newspapers, but from internet giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo: organizations that employ no journalists and hold to no journalistic standards of integrity. Many people only get “news” from cable TV (CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and OAN) sources consisting of 99% opinion and advertising rather than actual news.
Critical thought garners no income for the media. Emotion is what sells. Old fashioned newspapers featured minimal emotion. The newspaper reader was too busy speeding around the community, the culture, and the world to get stuck in the blathering of demagogues. If you’ve replaced the newspaper with cable news, you need to be tranquilized before you are fit to talk with your neighbors.
So, here we are. What to do? Maybe we can start by just noting and lauding what a good newspaper provides. Then we can be mindful of how broadly we are letting ourselves be exposed to the world, especially if we have confined ourselves to “sources” that simply reinforce our emotions about politics and religion. We can invest in a couple newspapers to keep us better connected with people and cultures we don’t know much about. And we might even start up our own local paper (given the ease of putting things out on the internet these days) by organizing ten people unlike ourselves, retired people who have the time and skill, and giving ourselves a little taste of the wider community. Maybe I’ll do that myself… unless my bishop decides to interrupt my retirement…
 The top newspapers in the country, by circulation, are as follows: 1) USA Today, 2) New York Times, 3) Wall Street Journal, 4) Washington Post, 5) LA Times, 6) Tampa Bay Times, 7) New York Post, 8) Chicago Tribune, 9) Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 10) Newsday.