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Media > Politics and Prejudices

What we'll miss

 

Published 3/4/2009

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From time to time I beat up (always lovingly, of course) on the Detroit newspapers, whose staff members tend to be far more self-righteous and thin-skinned than your average politician.

I don't bash papers because they don't do good work. They do, with a small amount of stupidity thrown in. My frustration for years has been that they don't do better. That's in large part because they have been prevented from doing so by the greed and general stupidity of the conglomerates that now own nearly all of them.

Nevertheless, newspapers — in my view, printed-on-paper newspapers — are absolutely essential to democracy, literacy and community. I am not smarter than many of my Wayne State students, and most are far more technologically sophisticated than I'll ever be.

But at their age, I was miles ahead of where they are now in spelling, grammar and general literacy. That's largely because I have been reading newspapers all my life, starting with the comics before I ever went to kindergarten. (Yes, I still remember the time Dick Tracy solved the murder of the man whose wife kept his body in the freezer.) Sadly, today's young people don't read newspapers, by and large. They read news, if they do, on the Web, which means they read about plane crashes and Jennifer Aniston. Soon, we all may have no choice in the matter; newspapers may exist only on the Web.

Detroit is often on the cutting edge for everything from economic depression to the assembly line. And the Detroit Newspaper Monopoly (the News and Free Press) is about to make us the first major city not to offer daily newspaper delivery. As of March 30, they'll bring papers to you only on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

The rest of the time, you can read them online. Or go down to the store to buy one, or get it in the mail. But my educated guess is that this half-delivered, half-cyberspace game won't last long at all. First of all, reading newspapers is normally not only a habit, but a routine. I bring mine in off the doorstep (or, more realistically, fish them out of the driveway and the shrubs) right after the dog walks me. Soon, for most people, that will be the case only three days a week.

We can mentally remember to do something every day, or perhaps once a week. Not four days a week. People will get confused, look for it when it isn't there, forget about it when it is, and eventually say "to hell with it" and cancel the damned thing. When that starts happening, look for the newspapers to switch to appearing in printed form only on Sundays, and maybe Fridays, partly to hold all the pre-printed inserts most people throw away.

Not to worry, they tell us; the paper will be the same as ever, just floating in cyberspace, where we can even see it looking like a newspaper, in columns and with pictures, etc.

Sure we will. We might even be able to read it too, if we have a monitor the size of a barn door. Possibly we'll even be able to print out the crossword puzzle, and take it with us. If we know how. But I don't think anybody is going to do that. Except for a few nerds like me they'll just stop reading these papers, and democracy, and our sense of community, will die a little more.

Incidentally, the Detroit newspapers were spared the latest round of bottom line-driven Gannett editorial layoffs and furloughs, as a morale-booster while they ramp up for their new electronic adventure. That won't last, of course; they may save money on paper, but there will be a dramatic fall-off in advertising revenue.

Writing in the Atlantic magazine last month, Michael Hirschorn predicted The New York Times, the greatest newspaper on earth, could go out of business this year. He doesn't really think that will happen. But he does think the paper will migrate to cyberspace, and predicts that when it does, the revenue will be sufficient to sustain only about one-fifth of the reporting and editing staff they have now.

What that means is farewell to much major-league journalism. Which doesn't, by the way, mean only investigative blockbuster stories. Newspapers are also how a community talks to itself and learns about itself, however imperfectly. Take Sunday's Free Press.

There is a moving, excellently written front page story (by Jo-Ann Barnas) on Red Simmons, a 99-year-old sports legend who still exercises every day, drives everywhere and, more importantly, was the father of women's track and field events. Intellectually, he is more than all there. Except ... he doesn't use a computer, so may not be able to read future stories about himself.

Even those of us who do use a computer, every damn day, may not want to cuddle up on the couch with a glowing wireless glass screen that keeps getting knocked offline by interference.

Yes, there still will be "news." We will be able to see and read about Kwame Kilpatrick getting indicted, if anyone is still doing the journalism that can get him indicted. We will be able to see Charlie LeDuff clowning around with the addled and toxic Monica Conyers.

What I most fear we won't be able to do is learn the stuff we really need to make our communities function. Community journalism is being killed by the Gannetts of this world. Gannett has taken the reporters who used to cover Oakland County for the Eccentric newspapers, for example, and stuck them in windowless offices in their printing plant in Sterling Heights in Macomb County.

One of my best recent graduates is a copy editor-page designer for the Port Huron newspaper. Except that some days Mandy designs and edits pages for the newspaper in Battle Creek, 180 miles away. To save money, Gannett got rid of their copy editors and outsourced the work to the Gannett paper in Port Huron. (Watch for both papers to be done in Bangladesh, soon.) How likely is she to catch a mistaken nuance or spelling of a local name? Not nearly as likely as if she lived there.

The Scripps-Howard chain had a motto when I worked for it, "Give light and the people will find their own way." Less and less light is being shone into more and more communities these days. By the time we learn how much that costs us, it may be too late.

It's what's happening: You might not think of Macomb County Community College as a leading intellectual and cultural center. Think again. It's putting on what has to be one of the nation's best-ever retrospectives on the 1960s, from now through May 16.

They have a fascinating exhibit that fills the lobby of the Lorenzo Cultural Center, with everything from psychedelic posters to a Mustang to continuous Dick Van Dyke show episodes, but the real attraction is the speakers. Andrew Young, for example, Thursday, March 5. Other national notables coming include Gloria Steinem (Apr. 16), Richie Havens (Apr. 17), the Smothers Brothers (Apr. 18), Stanley Karnow (May 7) and Ted Sorensen (March 26), who many think wrote Profiles in Courage. OK, they have a Bobby Vinton concert too (Apr. 26), but even the '60s weren't all about good taste.

If you were wondering, yes, they did ask me to speak, but not to worry. I did so already, and you won't have to endure that. Find out more about all the good stuff at lorenzoculturalcenter.com.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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