The Wire is an amazing show. No news there.
I’m currently in the middle of season five which focuses on the Baltimore Sun and the cannibalizing of that once venerable newspaper. Bought by a large Chicago media corporation, the paper’s staff is slashed and its role as the fourth estate severely compromised. Veterans with long-nurtured sources give way to kids looking for shortcuts; the sensational outweighs the substantive.
So when I read this headline today, US Newspaper Circulation Drops 10 Percent, I couldn’t help but think about The Wire’s portrayal of the Sun and the societal vacuum left behind as it withers on the vine.
Full disclosure: I worked as a print journalist. In fact, I’m old enough to have learned how to set type during one of my shop classes in high school. So I have sentimental attachments to print media. I can wax poetic as well as any news reactionary about the beauty of a Sunday paper spread out on the table as I’m sipping coffee.
But I also realize that modern print journalism was itself revolutionary when it emerged in the 17th century, displacing as it did oral and handwritten traditions for the dissemination of news. I can’t imagine at that point anyone could have predicted the golden era of newspapers in the United States, when New York City alone boasted 20 daily papers. As old orthodoxies die, and new ones haven’t yet jelled, we live with the uncertainty of being unable to imagine a future.
What we need to realize, as Clay Shirky writes, is that it isn’t newspapers that are the critical piece.
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
As always, what works is to teach our children to be savvy consumers of what the media dishes out – whether it’s the yellow journalism of the 19th century or misinformation about health care reform in the 21st century. And, perhaps, what we’ll find is that it will be our collective responsibility, as media-savvy citizen journalists, to act as the check on our government.
An authority no less than President James Madison said:
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy.”