The Death of the Newspaper and the Future of Democracy

By Saliem Fakir · 4 Aug 2009

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Picture: JK5854
Picture: JK5854

Sixteen thousand is the number of jobs lost in 2008 by the US newspaper industry and just about 10,000 in the first half of 2009.

It is unclear how many jobs have been cut by the local newspaper industry but we have not been saved the ravages of the economic downtown.

The press is indeed bleeding editors, journalist, and columnists. The meaning of all of this is unknown. What replaces it may not be entirely satisfactory, as the seemingly imminent death of newspapers does not imply the death of media or news.

Newspapers will always exist but not in the form we know them today. 

There are different reasons for the newspaper's demise beyond the financial crisis.

It could well be that the age of intelligent reading is being replaced by 'infotainment', which much of the media continue to blurt out in stupendous amounts. But there is also no indication, as such, that interest in news or opinion has waned. It has just shifted platform.

It may well be, too, that the new virtual media platforms pander to the hunger for news from an 'infotained' and distracted class of readers that prefers sound bites rather than depth. Perhaps the recipient and his/her habits are also profoundly changing the form and format of the media itself.

It is, after all, a generation bred on a culture of fast foods, cars and entertainment such that news must also be instantaneous rather than intellectually demanding.

Are they to be entirely blamed for this? Ever since the PR industry took over political campaigns and corporate advertising, politicking and imaging through sound bites and messaging has gained dominance and contributed to this culture of celebrating the catchphrase. 

The new age of 'infotainment' may be the telltale sign of an age that is disengaged from intellectual curiosity and knowledge, which the age of newspapers tend to symbolise. Newspaper reading does, after all, have a certain intellectual air to it.

This shift may be affecting the viability of hardcopy newspapers regardless of the economic downturn.

This in itself may bring about the death of literacy and intelligence in general, as scholars such as Susan Jacoby opined in her book, The Age of American Unreason.

She hasn't been alone intoning this concern.

Frank Furedi, in a slimmer tome 'Where have all the intellectuals gone?' makes a similar argument.  He describes despondently, "the absence of a significant intellectual movement devoted to the advance of a distinct set of ideas to the wider public interest."

The tendency is towards dumbing down ideas rather than going for depth and critical debate.  

But it would also be more truthful to admit that as the new generation moves into the virtual world, we don't fully grasp yet what their minds and world are like.

Newspapers did perform an important political function that the new virtual media is continuing.

The press has always been perceived as nourishing citizens insights and views of the world. More importantly, newspapers have played that important role of filter, providing news and insights about how we happen to be governed from one era of political regime to another.

It has also helped solidify the practice of citizenry - as it should be in a multicultural society - because a lot of what we know about each other does not just come from direct and personal interaction, but also what is conveyed via the press.

Citizens' struggles, formation of identity and pursuits of common interests are facilitated by the interaction of views via the press. As Thomas Clarkson, the main figure behind the abolition of slavery quickly discovered, newspapers were a great ally in his campaign to get British citizens to boycott sugar produced by the slave plantations.

Adam Hochschild in his book Bury the Chains, noted that newspapers were key to the "spread of antislavery feeling: they reprinted articles, published fund appeals, and their reports of abolitionist meetings and petitions in provincial cities stimulated similar actions elsewhere."

Newspapers at once helped spread the word of empathy and connected anonymous people in unfamiliar towns and places towards a common moral cause. Together with other platforms, newspapers allowed a novel type of cross-border politics to emerge -- a precursor to the transnational activism of today that is much wider and faster given modern technology.

The scale and magnitude of what can be achieved in the digital age is enormous. The effect is to construct an instantaneous trans-boundary public space and multiple theatres of operation in different geographic regions without the need for physical presence or the bother of border controls. 

This was proven most dramatically when the resource poor Zapatistas in Mexico went 'virtual'. A simple email news connection, literally from a village deep in the forest, has proven how localised struggles can gain a truly transnational following. An unknown indigenous group has become the symbol of a common struggle against regional trade agreements.

Not always have newspapers been able to tell the truth or traverse the ground enough to cover every aspect of our cultural, political and economic life and richness. These omissions can be deliberate or due to resource constraints.

Of course there is a critical discourse on the nature of the press, press independence and the press' ideological and hegemonic role.

None other than world-renowned intellectual, Noam Chomsky showed the dubiousness of certain types of press coverage. Using Walter Lippmann's famous phrase, 'manufacturing consent', Chomsky demonstrated that the press could play the hand of the establishment. Its primary duty, under this tutelage, was to 'manufacture consent' and ensure a compliant citizenry.

Passivity against ideological, political and economic hegemony was the ideal state of relations between the established classes and ordinary masses. This seemingly ordered way in which servile relations was fostered, is still in many instances, the case within the structure of current political economy, but it can't be taken for granted anymore nor be assured stability.

Newspapers, like the Internet age are of no value without an accompanying culture of debate, critical curiosity and the search for truth. Newspapers enliven as much as they are enlivened by a milieu of critical openness.

And public opinion making is complex. It is as much governed by prejudice, identity bias or bias of special interest as it is informed by just what the press does to our minds and opinions. The press may play on these various prejudices and protect special interests, be they class or race based, and it is not always uniform in how it does this.

Nonetheless, the play on the latent desires and prejudices of the reading audiences is not always guaranteed, as French literary critic Roland Barthes once retorted, "The critic can in no wise substitute himself for the reader." Despite the writers experience, knowledge and/or assumed authority to represent the reader's views and feelings, it is questionable whether the writer is guaranteed a loyal and unquestioning reader.

In effect, the rise of the Internet age has also brought to the fore a much needed outlet for the reader having suffered the conceit and suffocating thoughts of the tabloid writer.

This new front of the virtual world has opened a vista of new explorations in opinion making. Readers and citizens have long been held hostage by the premature triumphalism of the mainstream press, but we are currently witnessing the reader going 'awol' in the virtual world.

There is a mixed tradition emerging in cyberspace -- the good, the bad, the ugly and downright fabrications live side-by-side and anarchically. 

New technologies are wearing down the old press' tenure -- that is for sure.

Some would even suggest that the decline of the mainstream press is long overdue. It has long become errant, as commercial interests have overtaken public interest. It's not entirely certain that this prognosis is a good one.  Even a bad press can play a useful function.

However, what is new of Internet based journalism is that there has been a certain 'de-professionalization' and classlessness of the press, as a result. Almost anybody can participate, which has completely opened up the terrain where views and ideas can be sourced.  

Many blog writers have not come through the formal press corps and academies where reporting and journalism skills are honed. They don't adhere to any particular institutional standards or regime of codes. There is something liberating about all of this.

They are also not bound by the commercialism of the established press, as access to the virtual world is neither costly nor entirely dependent on advertising.

This non-professional class of journalists are from the street, so to speak -- community organisations, academics, businessmen, readers, housewives, cooks, gardeners, motorbike mechanics, stock traders, the whole gamut of citizenry with varying interests and things to say about their world or the world around them.

Neither is there any particular rigour -- just a flood of voices and opinions.  

Never have we seen such a flurry of willingness to intervene and take the power of representation away from a professional and established class of institutionalised journalists and opinion makers.

All of this has taken on viral proportions. The age of crypto journalism is also making its way through social networking devices like Twitter and Facebook. It is not entirely clear whether they are a fad or a force to be reckoned with.

It may breed a new age of mindless cyber-noise in which critical thinking itself is the victim. There is certainly a lot of freedom in cyberspace but there could also be no real knowledge nor thought of substance.

However, we should be cautious of seeing the shift of platform to the virtual world as a victory for free opinion. Internet access is not universal and in our country only 4 million people have access to the Internet.

The conventional press has never always been closed and its continued existence in one form or the other will only complement our access to opinion and the world. Newspapers give court to lively debate and knowledgeable expositions of ideas and the world.

The professionalism of the press also has its advantages in terms of ensuring quality journalism, rigour and interrogation of facts. The Internet is a bit dubious on this account and it really depends which sites one goes to.

The death of something should not always be celebrated as its phantom may come to haunt us.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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9 Oct

Falling Readership

On the subject of falling newspaper readerhip:
Simple, the articles are too long-winded. I want a compact paper that gives a brief summary; not reams of taurean faeces and speculation. I couldn't care less about sports or the so-called entertainment section. These should be separate entities.

Thus, I haven't bought a paper for over 15 years, and probably wont for the next 15 years.

Google News is the future; a selection of highlights with the option to expand any story or request other items.
Any on-line paper that charges too much will also be cheerfully ignored.

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