Is the Death of Newspapers the End of Good Citizenship?

By Bruder, Jessica | The Christian Science Monitor, November 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Is the Death of Newspapers the End of Good Citizenship?


Bruder, Jessica, The Christian Science Monitor


One Saturday in June, the Pinstripe Brass Band played a traditional jazz funeral in the lakeside Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. When "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" gave way to a livelier tune, dozens of mourners danced.

But there was no coffin. Black frosting on a sheet cake spelled "- 30-," the mark reporters put at a story's end. This was a requiem for a newspaper.

The 175-year-old daily Times-Picayune, with a paid weekday circulation of more than 134,000, had announced plans to slash print publication to three days a week, leaving daily coverage to its online edition. "Paper Lays Off 200 Employees" blared a Times- Picayune headline. Those cuts included the funeral's host, photographer John McCusker, who had documented hurricane Katrina from a kayak after losing his home to the floodwaters.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Mr. McCusker and his colleagues had madeThe Times-Picayune indispensable to a community rebuilding after tremendous loss.

So when readers learned their daily paper was going away, many saw a dangerous civic situation.

The irregular, diminished patchwork of media that remains which encompasses fewer seasoned reporters won't come close to offering the same intensive coverage that a full-force daily did, says activist Anne Milling. On the watchdog side, that means reduced government accountability. And on the information-delivery side, in a city where a third of adults lack home Internet access, the new Web focus will leave the most vulnerable Picayune readers behind.

"A daily Times-Picayune has been the backbone of the community in our post-Katrina environment and provides the foundation for all civic dialogue and discourse," Ms. Milling wrote in a notice announcing the launch of The Times-Picayune Citizens' Group, an alliance she founded to amplify readers' concerns.

And readers were upset.

Hundreds of them attended rallies, waving placards that said "Don't Stop the Presses." More than 9,000 signed an online petition. "Save the Picayune" lawn signs and Wild West-style "Wanted" posters with the new publisher's face cropped up across town. The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution calling unanimously for the paper to remain a daily. Readers began to boycott what they now called "The SomeTimes-Picayune."

Their daily paper had remained well read and profitable despite the newspaper industry's overall decline. Three-quarters of residents saw the paper each week, making its stories a centerpiece of conversation from barbershops to city hall.

New Orleans was about to become the largest city in America without its own daily paper. But beneath the drama was a quieter question: Does it matter?

More than sentiment is at stake. The number of American daily newspapers has fallen from 1,878 in 1940 to 1,382 last year. When daily newspapers die, communities become less connected and collaborative, new studies suggest. Economists and media researchers are seeing a drop-off in civic participation the same kind of collective vigor readers showed in fighting for The Times-Picayune after the presses stop rolling.

"More of American life now occurs in shadow. And we cannot know what we do not know," said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, testifying at a 2009 Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing on the future of news.

New research suggests that fewer people vote after their communities lose a daily print newspaper. Fewer run for office. Fewer boycott or buy something based on what they think of a company's values. Fewer contact public leaders to voice opinions. Fewer pitch in with neighborhood groups. More incumbent politicians get reelected. And these things happen despite the presence of digital and broadcast media.

What you don't know may hurt you

Tom Stites founded the Banyan Project an initiative to develop reader-owned, online news cooperatives, which he incubated as a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society because he worries about "news deserts. …

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