Is No News Good News?
By Patrick F. Cannon
(This piece was occasioned by the news that Alden Global Capital had bought 31 percent of the Chicago Tribune’s stock. They have drastically cut the editorial staffs of every paper they control, most recently the Denver Post. I believe in Capitalism to my core, but groups like Alden dishonor it, for they gut rather than build companies.)
When I moved to Chicago in 1946, there were 5 daily newspapers – Herald-American (the Hearst paper), Daily Times, Sun, Daily News and Tribune. The Sun and Times merged and survive, as does the Tribune. When I began riding the bus to work in the Loop in 1956, almost everyone was reading either the Sun-Times or Tribune; on the way home, they picked up either the Herald American or Daily News. Newsstands were common and convenient.
Now, when I ride the train downtown, as I do two or three times a month, it is rare to see anyone reading a newspaper; almost everyone, however, is staring at their phones. Are they reading a digital edition of a newspaper? No doubt a few are. While its print circulation has tumbled, the Tribune has seen increases in digital subscribers, as have The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, among others. And it’s easy to see a future when only digital editions of these and other newspapers will be available. Frankly, I’ll miss turning those pages every morning, but I guess people missed the town crier too.
But what about local news? Between 2004 and 2018, 516 rural newspapers closed, as did 1,294 in urban areas. And almost every surviving newspaper has seen cuts in its editorial staff. In hundreds of counties, there are no newspapers of any kind. Which means no one to regularly keep tabs on the activities of local governments. Perhaps you live in Shangri La, where the politicians always have your best interests at heart; but I live in Illinois, where ex-governors and aldermen spend their declining years in prison.
Although actual figures are difficult to come by, the total daily circulation of the Tribune – print and digital – is now about 550,000; the Sun-Times less than half that. In their heyday, their print circulations were about 850,000 and 450,000 respectively. Where then are the missing readers getting their news?
Network news programs make some effort to cover national news, but can only scratch the surface in the 30 minutes they have (actually, more like 22 after you deduct the commercials and promos). As you’ve probably noticed, I think local TV news is laughable. Of course, there is no lack of “news” available on the cable channels and on-line. Thus, consumers are able to shop for the point of view about news that agrees with their own. While both Fox News and MSNBC give us a bit of straight news, most of their content panders to the existing biases of their viewers. No rational person would watch either.
There are any number of paid sites that cover politics exclusively, but most people aren’t interested in diving that deeply. In the end, only the daily newspapers have the staff and resources to broadly cover the news, both local and national. Let’s say right here that none of them is perfect. Let’s also concede that most of their staff members tend to the liberal side of the spectrum. They make mistakes, sometimes serious ones that lead their critics to discount the great majority of their coverage that is actually accurate and unbiased.
With a few exceptions, mainly Fox News, President Trump accuses most of them of trafficking in “fake news.” I define “fake news” as the news you don’t want to hear, whether you’re on the left or the right. The President is notably adverse to the truth. He has lied so often that it’s probably pointless to any longer keep track of them, as the Washington Post does (for the record, they stood at 13,435 in October).
As for me, I’ll continue to read the paper every day. If it goes all digital, I’ll read it that way (as I already do when travelling). If I want an up-to-date weather forecast, and breaking entertainment news, I’ll tune in to the local news, whose news directors read the newspapers to see what’s actually going on around town. So should we all.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon
7 thoughts on “Is No News Good News?”
Ever since USA Today started selling papers out of coin operated street dispensers that look like TV sets, the news has been an entertainment media not an information one, trafficking in stories, gossip and scandals. And like just about everything else these days, it has become hopelessly politicized. In Europe, they are at least honest about it. The dailies are each aligned with a political party or view, so when you read them you know where they are coming from. Here the media operates on the absurd pretense that they are objective, even to the point of hiring “fact checkers” to give the appearance of impartiality. Nonsense. And it should be added that journalists today have to be careful about what they report, lest they place their careers in jeopardy for politically unacceptable positions on events and personalities.
As for me, I don’t bother much with the news but look for information in the opinion pages. Real Clear Politics is especially good at providing opposing viewpoints on issues. From them you can see where the various outlets align on the political spectrum, so if you pick up The Federalist you know you are going to read a very different take than the one on Vox. USA Today on its editorial page used to present opposing views on current issues. I don’t know if they still do.
What I probably miss the most in the old newspapers was good sports writers. The Trib used to shine in that area. Now all you get are the clowns on ESPN, or worse the panel of inarticulate former athletes before, during and after games. It’s enough to make one throw the cheese dip at the cat.
I do go to Real Clear Politics for differing viewpoints. Newspapers are critical for local news; news reports almost always come before investigations and indictments. Don’t read the Sun-Times, but Trib sill has some good beat writers. By the way, can’t wait to see what Brits do. Loved to look at the newspapers when I was there!
The daily in Mayberry, a Gannett affiliate, is mostly fluff and so-so with local news details. The best source I have found for what’s happening in town, and especially what’s going on in city hall, is a website operated by a fellow and his wife (though she now works for the Chamber). So it does take some digging these days to find reliable information.
By the way, from the writing on the papers the photo at the top looks like a news kiosk in Italy with the various dailies and weeklies on display. They still have them.
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By George, you’re right, as I discovered with use of my magnifying glass.
Bravo, Pat! Excellent piece. I came to Chicago in 1974, when Chicago’s American, the Daily News, Sun-Times, and Tribune were publishing. Our biggest loss, I think, is that comprehensive local coverage that is essential for democracy to function. I hope people are listening to you! Best, Dick
I think the Trib staff and supporters are trying to find local buyers before Alden is permitted to buy controlling interest next June. If they get it, we can say goodbye to the paper as we know it.