A few good words about newspapers

Survey the latest news about newspapers — the unending layoffs of staffers, the ever-shrinking content — and then understand that there’s a threat here, not just for those poor souls in a struggling business, but to you. The threat is of intellectual diminution.

It’s easy enough to join the masses in cursing mass media, to shove newspapers into that sack and shake it while chanting about negativity, bias, shallowness, tastelessness and more. It is less a crowd-pleaser to break out of that stereotype into an awareness of a broader truth about the extraordinary accomplishments of print journalism in our time and the meaning of this for our pluralistic, democratic society.

Just for starters, newspapers do something that television could not do if it tried, which it seldom does. They give you details, all those little pieces of information that add up to context, nuance, subtlety and ultimately understanding. Sum up a major event in a few minutes or more, and the viewer learns next to nothing, and nothing much sticks in the mind except for an impression. Details function as something like thumbtacks that attach the information to your brain, and when they are provided in print, you engage that brain more intently and precisely than when it is watching and listening.

Beyond that, newspapers daily throw huge numbers of reporters into the search for stories, and what they dig up is unmatched with any degree of consistency by any non-print media form. With staffs a fraction of the size of those at newspapers, television newsrooms cannot begin to keep up, and in fact rely on newspapers to guide them to the action. Internet sites would be utterly lost without newspapers to keep them informed; they themselves produce hardly any fresh news at all.

Given the coverage and editing structures that have evolved at newspapers and their general if sometimes abused standards of clarity, honesty, balance and accuracy, their service to our society is enormous, and not just because of the often-mentioned, crucial business of informing a self-governing citizenry of what public officials are up to. What deserves more than just a slight mention is the heaping helping of information about science, technology, business and health care, about sports, arts and entertainment, about our lifestyles, about the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the schools we attend, about fads and trends and personalities and much, much more.

Like so much that is the wonder of America in the 21st century, we tend, I think, to take all this for granted, but pause to consider how much less you would know about the world you live in without newspapers. Your experience of your life would be less rich, less discerning, alert or aware. It would be as if someone were dimming the lights, and those of us who are now newspaper readers would be more prone to stumbling and to misunderstandings, more likely to miss opportunities and to march into danger.

It’s happening already. A study by the Pew Research Center tells us that 85 percent of metro papers and more than half of small-town dailies have laid off reporters, copy editors and other newsroom staffers over the past several years. Thousands of newspaper jobs have gone out the window just this summer, many of them at our most prestigious papers. The smaller staffs are accompanied by less space for news, and, says Pew, we are therefore getting reduced coverage of "specialized subjects" as well as of the arts, science, business, foreign news and even national news.

The biggest issue for these highly expensive operations is declining revenues now going in increased amounts to the Internet as well as to a great many other places. And while most papers are doing their best to explore Internet possibilities themselves, there’s not a lot of hope there so far. Web sites divide the pie so many ways that no single slice can come up with revenue sufficient to finance staffs of the size we’ve had at newspapers.

Not all is necessarily lost. Perhaps the Internet and innovative editors will up with ways to preserve the distinguishing value of newspapers. It would help if more citizens understood this value themselves.


(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)