September 20, 2021
By Arthur H. Gunther III
If true readers were the only people newspapers and Internet information providers had to be concerned about, there would be little reason for this essay. They are hooked on the news, educated and brought up and matured to understand the value of a free press in a free society, warts and all. An imperfect world, but what would be the alternative? No news, super-biased news? Gossip? So-called “fake news”?
Since printing began and the first sheets of paper brought news to individuals, private companies could count on people to buy enough dailies and weeklies to keep the print profession going; to support advertisers; to hold circulation stable. Now there are too few of these readers, who instead take to smart phones for word bites, no details please.
The Computer Age and the Internet, the cell phone, video games and the many morphings of television all snatch concentration time away from people, who seem busier than ever with seemingly endless schedules. There are fewer lunches spent with a newspaper; fewer evenings after dinner in an easy chair with the editorial page or columnists; fewer open pages of The Daily This or That spread across the kitchen table.
Now it’s the constantly-on computer or smart phone and Google. In milliseconds, much information appears — too much, too quickly. News is read in headlines and short paragraphs, barely digested. Photographs and other images steal viewer time, reducing the brain’s word count.
This means fewer print readers and fewer newspapers sold, putting many out of business. What were once cash-cow operations that left the newsroom to do its job without interference are profit-driven companies that enact cuts everywhere and which call their papers “products” that require front-office managing by non-newspapermen so as to guarantee the bottom line. Once the city room was a church of sorts, an information sanctuary, left unsullied by businessmen who could never understand news people anyway. But they made money for the bosses. Now they don’t make enough.
More than ever, newspapers are decided by profit, and that affects what to cover; how deeply reporting goes; how thorough the editing is; and whether the traditional “who, what, when, where, how and why” of journalism will continue as creed or whether one or two of the pillars of fact-gathering fall to cost-cutting, thereby weakening the story and journalism itself. And democracy. Because democracy dies in darkness, in not questioning government and society.
The Computer Age, with its great but flawed ability to offer “facts” and commentary so quickly; to spread such information around the globe; and to keep it in reference form that eventually can out the wrong-doers presents an opportunity to add to individual knowledge and so empower him or her to self-educate. And since education leads to questioning, the hope is that the Internet’s ever more vast store of words, data and images will make our younger people more like the newspaper readers of other years — those who question, those who think.
The challenge for newspapers with digital sites is to present Internet information in such a way as to make the reader interactive, to want more details, to then ask questions in e-mail letters, in Internet forums and blogs.
There will always be a thirst for information. Humans have craved news since the first of us scrawled something on a rock wall. And businessmen will always want to make a profit. If they can do that in the information delivery business, fine. Might even make some of them feel a lofty goal is being met.
What we all must do, whether we are the kind who grew up with three newspapers a day in the house seven days a week or if we are online perusers of news, is to support information delivery. Buy newspapers. Read them. Turn on the Internet but truly seek information and understand it, and then question. The “who, what, when, where, why and how” still must be satisfied. We must read, in print or online, then question, then react. And most of all, if there is no “why” or “how,” if any key word in the pursuit of a free and open press is missing, we must let the bean counters in the media know.
Otherwise, the free press will lose the ammunition it needs to keep us safe from individuals and groups seeking to control the information flow for their own anti-democratic, greedy purposes. They would rather not have the media watching them.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier version.