Thomas Jefferson - ‘All Shall Become Wolves’

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by Reed Anfinson, Editor, Publisher

Recently the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in the News Media came out with its annual report on the state of the media in America. Its findings don’t bode well for newspapers, but nor does it have good news for the citizens of this country.

We must first say that there is a vast difference between community newspapers in rural America and the big metropolitan dailies in this country. We are about community. We are the only ones interested in what is happening at the city council, school board and county commission meetings. We are the only ones who report about how our local sports teams are doing in detail, week after week. We are the only ones who report on the 90th birthdays, 60th wedding anniversaries, and the birth of the fourth generation in your family.

That focus and uniqueness separates us from the big newspapers, insulating to some degree, but certainly not entirely, from the impact of the Internet on advertising revenues.

What Pew’s most recent study shows is that digital revenue is not coming close to replacing the advertising newspapers have traditionally used to pay for reporters. Pew’s study shows that last year for every $1 a newspaper made in digital advertising it lost $16 in print. But to see the longer-range impact, go back to 2003.

In 2003, the Internet was a dark storm cloud rising over the horizon. But newspapers were very healthy and naively optimistic about the future. That year total newspaper revenues in the nation hit $45 billion. Last year, Pew reports, that revenue fell to $19 billion and continues to drop.

But even more demoralizing is that while print revenue fell by $26 billion in the past decade, digital revenue accounted for just a paltry $1.2 and $3.3 billion in ad growth for newspapers.
What has been the impact?

More than one-third of the reporters that once covered city hall, the state legislature, the police beat, investigated corporate crime, kept track of spending at government agencies, and reported on the fairness of our courts are gone. Stories vital to an informed citizenry are going unreported. But one of the problems with the loss of reporting is that – we don’t know what we don’t know.
Where did all the advertising revenue go? The Internet. In 2012, Google, the grandest lamprey of the other people’s content, earned $46 billion in digital income - $1 billion more than all the nation’s newspapers combined in 2003. Google isn’t interested in reporting news.

For the growing impact of revenue piling up with Google and the social Internet sites such as Facebook, and being taken away from news organizations, consider these other Pew findings:
- Sports, weather and traffic now dominate local television “news” casts. Why? They are easy to cover, taking little time and little investment.

- CNN, which bills itself as the news channel with deep reporting, cut its depth reporting by nearly 50 percent over the past five years.

- Over the past five years ABC, NBC and CBS, cut their live coverage of news events by one-third. That allowed it to cut reporting staff and film crews. As a result, we are seeing more talking heads pontificate about the day’s news rather than reporters covering it.

- Even more disturbing is that news organizations today are working with software developers to create “virtual reporters.” The algorithms they are creating allow a program to digest statistics and other information and spew out a story – you don’t know that a human didn’t write it.

Ironically, the public that has been abandoning newspapers leading to their ever weaker reporting budgets, while demanding news online for free, are now leaving newspapers because their content isn’t as good as it used to be.

One basic law of physics, or in this case of information, is that voids want to be filled. But what fills them may not always be beneficial.

“In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public,” the Pew report states. Further, in the past years public relations staff, which used to be on a one-to-one stance with reporters, now outnumber them four to one.

“At the same time, newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media.  They are also seeing more success in getting their message into the traditional media narrative,” Pew says. What this means is that they are turning out news releases that subtly push their agenda and get in print and on the air with very little if any editing. The newspapers and television stations are thankful for the stories to offset the lost reporters in their newsrooms.
One of the nation’s Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson knew that for Democracy to work it needed not only a free press but a citizenry that was literate and had easy access to uncensored news. Today, we are supposedly awash in news in this multi-media world. But the vast majority of what we find online is nothing more than a rehashing of stories written by newspaper reporters –those very same reporters who are quickly disappearing.

Meanwhile, the public becomes less and less engaged in their communities and in their government. Today, far more time is spent with Facebook, text messaging, and video games.
Jefferson saw a real danger to the general population becoming disengaged from what their leaders were up to and with the direction the country was being led.

 “If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves,” the nation’s fourth president wrote.

“It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” Prophetic words from Jefferson as today we witness record inequality developing in America.

 

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