Thirty years ago, while tearing out walls of a bedroom during renovation of a country house, I discovered newspapers had been used for insulation. Tacked up in date order and perfectly preserved was the front-page coverage of the 1907 “trial of the century,” during which millionaire Henry K. Thaw faced charges of murdering architect Stanford White.
Fascinated with the contemporaneous, daily reports from the courtroom, I lost a whole weekend of work on that bedroom and then bought modern, pink, foamy stuff for the new insulation. I'm not sure it was any better.
Until recently, newspapers didn't stop being relevant when the news got old. They have been used to line birdcages, wrap fish and garbage and to wash windows. Shredded, they have filled many a cat litter box. They are excellent packing material, handy painting drop cloths and in a last-minute pinch, they can become amusing gift wrap.
Newspapers once had a long and useful household shelf life and now that era is ending.
All around the country, newspapers have been cutting staff, closing their doors or, if they can scrape the funds together, switching to electronic-only distribution. And these moves are accelerating.
- In February, Denver's Rocky Mountain News shut down after 146 years of publication.
- On Tuesday, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became the biggest city daily to close its print edition. It will live on as a web-only paper now, with many fewer employees.
- In April, the Christian Science Monitor will cease print publication except for one weekend edition and switch their daily schedule to the internet.
There will be more. This downshift in reporting has crucial implications for the future of a democracy, but today I want to talk about a related, if lesser, consequence: the impact on blogging.
In the blogosphere, opinion is cheap and reporting is almost non-existent. Bloggers (I include myself in this) hop around the web, gather a couple of quotations and use them to legitimize our points. Without the legwork reporters do, we would not have anything on which to base our opinions.
Some blogs, including some of the most popular and praised, hardly bother with the added value of opinion; they just write a headline and insert a link to the newspaper. Even The Huffington Post, which labels itself “The Internet Newspaper,” produces little original reporting; it is primarily punditry with links to newspaper stories and one-sentence lead-ins to television news videos.
Many of our blogging sources are not only secondary, they are tertiary because television news videos are often based on what TV producers and reporters read in the morning papers or on the wire services.
Most of television news's national and international bureaus were shut down 10 or 15 years ago so unless there are pictures as compelling as a natural disaster or plane crash, reporting is done from Washington and New York which accounts for the increase in panels of talking heads on news programs - a lot of blather without any reporting behind it.
Almost all blogging is derivative, and that is not bad, necessarily. That liberty badge in the left sidebar of this blog with Jay Rosen's statement that “Blogs are little First Amendment machines” isn't there for nothing. Blogs have given a public voice to anybody who wants one - millions of us - and don't think it can't have an impact. I was just one of thousands of bloggers who expressed their rage at the AIG bonuses on Sunday and Monday and the government noticed.
Especially when the zeitgeist comes together around a single story, as it has with AIG, political change can happen. Congress and the White House were flooded with angry phone calls and email about AIG and are now working on ways to claw back those unearned bonuses. Bloggers, in part, helped do that.
But we read it in the newspapers first.
Such public response cannot not happen without newspapers and professional reporters. It is primarily newspaper, and some TV, reporters who make the repeated phone calls, haunt the halls of Congress and city hall, do the tedious work of plowing through public records and who develop sources over time who are willing to spill the beans.
Now, as more and more of us rely on free editions of online newspapers for our information, more reporters will be laid off and more newspapers will die. Then what? In the decade-long existence of the blogosphere, the number of stories that have been broken by bloggers can be counted on one hand.
For some time, there has been an ongoing discussion among newspaper folks about how they can continue to exist. Even with only an online presence, reporters and editors need to eat and web advertising doesn't cover the bills – less so in our current, economic night.
The most obvious solution, charging a fee to read online newspapers, has already failed, but to preserve an independent press, it will be necessary in some form. A recent suggestion of 99 cents per story is untenable. The news-reading public, having now become accustomed to checking dozens of online sources, would raise holy hell. (At that price, it would cost me, at minimum, $50 a day.)
For now, I'm trusting that a solution will be found, but we are in untried territory. It will take time and some false starts before the problem is solved and undoubtedly more papers will fail before that happens.
Meanwhile, bloggers need to be aware of how much we count on and are beholden to the work of newspaper and, to a lesser extent, television reporters. I could not have written even this opinion-laden post without having read dozens of their stories over the past months and today.
Even though it's hard to wrap fish in flickering pixels, I don't care if newspapers stop appearing in print; electronic is fine. But our “little First Amendment machines” would lose most of their relevance without the hard work of journalists.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson remembers Maudie Mae.]