The long, slow death of the American newspaper

Journalism began dying about 50 years ago, but the public seems to have noticed it just recently, when the walking dead that American dailies had become finally started dropping into their graves.

You could say that the rise of the Internet, creating an alternate pathway for transmitting information, was the final nail in the coffin.

If you looked at a local newspaper from 50 years ago today, it would seem boring to you. That’s because newspapers used to be filled with stories about Planning and Zoning Board meetings, School Board meetings — even meetings of the schools’ finance committee. There were police blotters, with the names of everyone in town who’d been arrested, and for what.

Somewhere along the line, local newspapers became convinced that their readers would rather see syndicated gossip about Britney Spears and American Idol than read “boring” stories about which developer was about to build a high-rise blocking your view and raising everyone’s taxes. Papers stopped reporting on who’d been arrested (yet again) for assault or drunk driving.

The papers that are disappearing today are but ghosts of local journalism, finally fading away.

Oddly, the investigative journalism that appeared to have revitalized the field in the 1960s probably contributed to its demise. As a reporter who did investigative work as well as beat reporting, I was on two papers that plunged into investigative projects in the 1970s. But instead of focusing investigative projects on suspicious activities beat reporters unearthed through their reporting, the investigations often began with a paper’s top officials asking “Who’s big who we could take down and make a nice, Pulitzer-style splash?” Those investigative witch hunts usually focused on a safe-to-attack government agency or on an individual in public office (such as the mayor with personal problems, or the social services project that was under-serving children or the elderly). You rarely saw investigations of banks, real estate, or private industry. That’s because local companies paid taxes and local real estate and financial operations were headed by the same folks who lunched with the newspaper publisher at the country club.

Yes, the demise of the American newspaper leaves Americans without any way to get information on what’s really going on in their towns and cities. But how upset can we get, since it had been years since we’d been seeing that information on more than a sporadic basis, anyway! (BTW, the local new site Crosscut does a better job of traditional reporting than the Times and P-I ever have.) And, finally: Many people make the argument that people would rather read about Britney Spears and American Idol than about the goings on in local government.

So…anyone want to blog about the Seattle Planning Commission?

%d bloggers like this: