Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Demise of Democratic Dialogue?

Changes are afoot for the mainstream print media. The Detroit Free Press is cutting home delivery to three days a week to save money, and the Chicago Tribune has filed for bankruptcy. Newspapers are no longer locally owned, and increasingly they are not about local news. In response to alternative media and the changing economy, they are reacting with editorial policies that promise to make themselves even more irrelevant.

Sadly, Stephens Media LLC is a good example. The flagship of the chain announced changes this week that could signal the future of The Morning News. "You will notice a few changes in today's printed edition of the newspaper," the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote on Monday. "Economic considerations have required us to consolidate some of our content on Mondays and Tuesdays. We have combined local and state news with national and world news in the front section. Weather and opinion share a page at the back of Section A. In addition, sports and business news will share a section on Tuesdays. You will find Variety, entertainment, the TV log and comics at the back of the Sports section." Got that? Less news, same price.

The Stephens-owned-and-controlled Morning News has announced an editorial change that promises to make it less relevant without any obvious enhancement of revenues. For some time now, The Morning News has neglected the potential of its Letters to the Editor section, a source of free copy and mild amusement in most newspapers. Now it has just gotten even worse with their imposition this week of additional guidelines on letter writers to assure blandness. No business disputes nor individual disputes allowed. No political candidates or office holders can be published unless carefully reviewed by staff. No open letters to public officials. So what's left that might motivate citizens to bother writing or reading this truncated idea of civic engagement? Odes to the banal? More letters from Jay Cole the Junior? Who was the genius that made these rules?

It looks like our local newspapers are following the local television and radio news model that has not served anyone well. Always a one-way voice that presumed to talk at rather than with citizens, newspaper owners and editors seem clueless about how to respond, either commercially or communicatively. Making cheaper buggy whips will not help save the industry in changing times, and providing better content is inconsistent with their pecuniary ideas about the worth of good reporters.

We wish them well, because the local newspapers' problems are our problems. As James Madison acknowledged two centuries ago, "a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both." Public debate in the digital age has been enhanced by the contributions of citizen bloggers, but we still need good newspapers and professional journalists who care as much about the public interest as corporate profits.

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