Don Surber misses the forest for the trees

Which is kind of surprising, to be honest.  Don’s an old newspaperman, he should know that making a blanket statement that “America will get along just fine without newspapers. Based on circulation in print and online, at least 80% of the nation already gets along without newspapers,” is just prime meat for some curmudgeonly person like me to sink their teeth into.

Don’s basic premise is that nobody trusts the media anymore.  And fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers.  And someone like Tucker Carlson can get more view for a single video interview with someone like Vladimir Putin than the daily readership of all US newspapers combined.

And I don’t argue with any of that.

What I argue with is his attitude that we don’t need newspapers.  I think we need them more than ever.  But the biggest problem with newspapers today is almost all of the proud and independent big-city dailies have been munched up by conglomerates like Gannett.  (I may be behind the times, I think Gannett was actually bought more recently by someone else, but the daily newspaper in my town lost any shred of respectability when it was sold by its founding family to Gannett, so 99% of the time I don’t bother reading it anymore.)  And what happens when you have many daily newspapers in far-flung cities and towns under your control is that things like copy editing and editorial policy are decided in offices far from your home.  For instance, for the Indianapolis Star, that happens in an office in Louisville.  And the number of local reporters has dropped considerably as a result.  In effect, every time I pick up the local paper, I feel like I’m holding one of the old neighborhood rags that used to cover what was happening in your part of the city and carried ads from your nearby businesses and suchlike.  School news.  Marriage announcements.  Church schedules.  Personal want ads, and service classifieds for those who didn’t want to put in full quarter-page or business-card sized ads.

One of those was The North-Side Topics.  If you wanted to know what was going on in the northern part of Indianapolis, you picked that up once a week (or it got delivered to your mailbox for free).  The main complaint I always had about it was it contained more ads than actual news, but on the other hand, without the ads, they wouldn’t have been able to publish it.  But Dad ran a two- or three-line ad for his contracting business in their Services classifieds for years and got more business between that and word-of-mouth from his customers than he could handle.

Well, the Indianapolis Star looks and feels like The North Side Topics, these days.  But without the local charm.

What is killing newspapers is there isn’t really anything in them of interest anymore.  Sports news and obituaries is about it, I think, and to be honest both have gone digital.  There are online blogs and other services that keep up with government news (local and state).

I think (and, sure, I could be wrong and Don Surber with his many years of experience in the industry may be right) that small circulation newspapers publishing weekly and focusing narrowly on local news (and I mean, local like “Washington Township, Marion County, Indiana”), subsidized by adverts from local businesses and organizations, could probably make a comeback in a digital era.  One thing you’d hope they’d be is non-partisan.  Another thing you’d hope is that the people writing and editing the stories would be folks from the same general area served by the paper, so they actually live and breathe what they’re writing about.  Because I’ll tell you, I’d read a newspaper like that.  I like knowing what’s going on around me, even if it happened a week ago.

Something I read in a book years ago came to mind when I was reading Don’s article.

“Manuel, on some subjects I don’t trust even myself. Limiting the freedom of news ‘just a little bit’ is in the same category with the classic example ‘a little bit pregnant.’ We are not yet free nor will we be as long as anyone–even our ally Mike–controls our news. Someday I hope to own a newspaper independent of any source or channel. I would happily set print by hand, like Benjamin Franklin.”

— Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Limiting the freedom of news is what has been going on for years as huge conglomerates have swallowed up small-town and big-city newspapers.  This is what has given us “the media” that Don rails about.  In Heinlein’s story, Prof yearns for the day when news was uncontrolled by shadowy forces beyond the ken of men.  Little neighborhood or township newspapers that focused on local people and local issues were for many decades that glue that held communities together.  Heinlein knew this because he lived in an era when there were plenty of newspapers to choose from.  I still remember when there were three daily newspapers in Indianapolis — a morning and two afternoons.

Maybe what we really need is for a thousand local newspapers to bloom.

Even if they caught up with the times and bloomed online.  But I’d happily hold a local-focused newspaper in my hands and read it with my morning coffee if it were a newspaper worth reading.

Besides, it’s harder to stop the signal if the medium is physical.