We need you and you need us

As the son of a journalist who became an ink-stained wretch himself, I take the current crisis in the newspaper industry rather personally. (So does the bank holding the mortgage on my house.) In the Internet age, the problem with the print media is similar to that of the world’s oldest profession, to which it is often compared, although print journalists tend not to be as attractive under a street light.

In a nutshell: How can a working girl make a living when everybody is giving it away? Nobody has figured it out, but you will be pleased to know that I refuse to wear fishnet stockings in a bid to increase readership.

Just this week, the major Philadelphia newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, became the latest to seek bankruptcy protection. If newspapers can’t be sold economically in a jumping place like Philly, then perhaps ice cream can’t be sold on a hot day.

Everywhere discussion proceeds on what can be done about the industry. Of course, I have several brilliant ideas. I think readers who subscribe to the print version (or are willing to pay something for online services) deserve a VIP level of benefits.

On the theory that if you want to yell at the umpire you have to be in the ballpark, I would limit letters to the editor to subscribers only. I would have a Letter Writers Ball annually, where Joey and the Eccentrics could entertain the crowd.

I would also offer subscribers a chance to take a columnist to lunch (I like lobster, by the way) and offer them special seminars on traditional newspaper skills (How to Look Rumpled in Public, Fundamentals of Inflating Reporter Expenses, Using the Words "On the Other Hand" in Editorials).

I think the trick is to think out of the box before we are consigned to a box.

Yes, I realize that not everyone wants us to stay in business, and that over at the Coliseum many in the crowd have their thumbs down, baying "Kill them! Kill them!" over the fallen gladiators of newsprint.

But those critics who wish the newspaper industry dead haven’t stopped to consider what happens afterwards. For one thing, whom will they blame for their own shortcomings? Why, it would be like a high-school hockey game without allegedly biased referees — parents would have no one to heap abuse upon to deflect the unfortunate fact that their kids couldn’t out-skate the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Accusations of media bias are usually as silly as this. I was once accused of anti-Swiss bias — I think I made a disparaging remark about Swiss cheese being less value for money on account of the holes.

In the same absurd way, conservatives with a strong aversion to taking personal responsibility like to insist that the media put Barack Obama in the White House.

When you have an ancient candidate doddering about and team him up with a vapid moose matron who reminded voters of a younger and perkier version of the thought-free president then in office, you and your party have bigger problems than the media.

No doubt someone will e-mail me to observe that this is just the sort of remark that makes people abandon newspapers. Given the epidemic of closed-mindedness on the political extremes, this is probably correct.

For more than 300 years, newspapers have printed incendiary opinions, but only now is it being held seriously against them. (In earlier times, it was just called free speech.) And if newspapers collectively did go soft on conservatives, then liberal and moderate readers would stop reading and not even a dead fish could get a newspaper.

All this shallow, juvenile scapegoating of newspapers obscures what is really good about them — and it isn’t bunching up the underwear of political partisans, important as that is.

The irreplaceable service of newspapers is the practical presence of that legion of reporters they employ and dispatch to monitor government in all its forms, starting at your local town hall.

Democratic societies need facts to function. They need watchdogs to bark and arouse us to certain facts — and those watchdogs need to be paid somehow.

You say you don’t like watchdogs? You say they are biased and have been barking too much up your tree? If you don’t want to see democracy destroyed by an ignorance of facts, then think twice before rejoicing that the print watchdogs now are mangy and old of tooth. No one else can adequately fill the gap.

As good as some bloggers are, watchdogging is a full-time, professional job — why, without big headlines to shame the rascals, the Big Government you say you hate will be upon us with a vengeance. Out of spite, it will force us all to wear fishnet stockings.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)