Jack Shafer: Democracy Doesn’t Need Newspapers

Slate’s uncle Jack is at it again with an informed look at how and why all of a sudden certain political figures are clamoring that American democracy needs the daily newspaper, and, more importantly, why that notion is wrongheaded.

Even an excellent newspaper carries only a few articles each day that could honestly be said to nurture the democratic way. Car bomb in Pakistan? Drug war in Mexico? Flood in North Dakota? Murder in the suburbs? Great places to get Thai food after midnight? A review of the Britney Spears concert? New ideas on how to serve leftover turkey? The sports scores? The stock report? Few of these stories are likely to supercharge the democratic impulse.

Newspapers simply have too much on their plates, so 92% of what ends up in their pages is either quickly written tripe, or overly-generic tripe that is just taking up the space between the dwindling number of ads. Take The Day as an example. They often put national news on their front page, but I can’t imagine the majority of the paper’s readership is really turning to them for coverage of the financial crisis, or terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

And then there’s this point:

On those occasions that newspapers do produce the sort of work that the worshippers of democracy crave, only rarely does the population flex its democratic might. How else to explain the ongoing political corruption in Illinois, which its press has covered admirably? Maybe an academic at Champaign-Urbana can prove that newspaper investigations of political corruption “damage” democracy by increasing the public’s cynicism. Or that stellar newspaper coverage that increases participation in the political process stymies democracy by recruiting too many knuckleheads. Or that bad (but well-meaning) journalism—of which there is too much—cripples the democratic impulse.

I think this is less a concern for smaller newspapers, because the scale makes it more feasible to accomplish news like this on a local level. The real problem is that the type of journalism that is being lauded by “democracy worshippers,” which is to say, investigative, is so costly that it’s the first casualty of budget cuts.

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One response to “Jack Shafer: Democracy Doesn’t Need Newspapers

  1. “Newspapers simply have too much on their plates, so 92% of what ends up in their pages is either quickly written tripe, or overly-generic tripe that is just taking up the space between the dwindling number of ads. Take The Day as an example. They often put national news on their front page, but I can’t imagine the majority of the paper’s readership is really turning to them for coverage of the financial crisis, or terrorist attacks in Pakistan.”

    I agree with the top half of this and Shafer’s first quote in this blog.

    HOWEVER, I disagree with the second half.

    I spent an afternoon with a guy this weekend who specifically said the opposite of your assertion. He said “The Day is my favorite newspaper in Connecticut. ” His reason? He said, and this is close to verbatim: “They always have some good international news in the paper–more than many area papers, and as I remember they were the only paper in Connecticut that was against going to war in Iraq.” I mean that’s just one guy, but still, I actually can imagine that the majority of their readers get international news from its pages. I know I always read that stuff. Sure, it’s more than anything a question of choosing the news that’s worthy of my gaze than producing international reporting, but I put value in that. I read the shit out of the Mumbai Terrorist attack stories in my local paper, and that’s where I got pretty much all my info about it.

    Also, I think the loss isn’t necessarily the woman who writes a bunch of shit stories or commentary about stuff nobody cares about, but the in-betweens. Like, if the newspaper doesn’t have a person covering bullshit municipal meetings, then the quality reporter who actually has the reporting energy and ability to break a story that, yes, can change events, gets stuck instead doing busy work and not doing important reporting. I don’t buy Shafer’s second point at all. It’s not always about a corrupt politician who won’t resign, or whether the paper plays a role in said politician’s demise. Sometimes it’s about telling the world that the local waste company is dumping trash in the river that’s making all of them sick, etc. I think you probably agree with me there, and I agree with you that, unfortunately, sometimes the first thing to go is the best thing the paper is doing. Shafer’s point that “On those occasions that newspapers do produce the sort of work that the worshippers of democracy crave, only rarely does the population flex its democratic might,” is TOTALLY backwards. That should be an argument for doing that kind of work as much as possible, BECAUSE it’s rare that ‘justice is served,’ or whatever.

    Not like I’m saving lives by any means, but I just spent like 3 hours updating listings today, which is I think an important part of my product–when it’s any good. But that also prevented me from working on a number of other things that I think might have served my readers better. This isn’t a democracy thing, obviously, but you know what I mean. When newspapers shit the bed, you can bet there’s going to be a lot of emptiness where there used to be information. I think that’s bad thing for our collective intelligence–or our ability to gather it.

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