Noted: “A Presidential Commission Won’t Save Newspapers”

Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz has an interesting item in the paper’s Aug. 17 edition (“The Press Loves a Hero, but … a Presidential Commission Won’t Save Newspapers”), in which he critiques Dan Rather’s call for Mr. Obama to do an inquiry on the travails of news media.

There are some smart things in there. He notes the emerging news dynamic of “walled garden vs. information-wants-to-be-free,” and the roles and possibilities of nonprofits vs. for-profits.

His doubts about the value of a presidential commission run contrary to my own sense that more dialogue on complicated issues can’t be a bad thing — as long as that dialogue is constructive and not oppressively prescriptive/didactic.

In particular, the issue of PUBLIC MEDIA and its neglect is largely overlooked by Kurtz in his critique. It is true that, despite the success of All Things Considered, public media in the United States has largely failed to serve the bulk of the public. That is a topic worthy of deep and responsive discourse.

More important, though, is his assertion that this is a technology problem, which I disagree with wholeheartedly:

Journalists got themselves into this mess by clinging to the past as technology threatened to pass them by. They’ll have to get themselves out of it without any assistance from the Oval Office.

It’s true that journalists got themselves into this mess.

But it’s not about technology. News media was not hunky dory before the Internet came along and ruined their ad model. The declines in readership date back to the ’60s, and are linked with broadcast and cable TV, as well as generational shifts in civic behavior.

Deeper still is commercial news media’s crisis of relevance.

Major newspapers have fewer subscribers because they’re not relevant. Their coverage simply and categorically does not include a wide variety of issues around money, labor, public health and more, and instead “upmarkets” relentlessly to build advertising appeal with coverage of “boom times” and “Gilded Age” topics such as personal finance, expensive restaurants, luxury cars, etc.

Tom Stites’ speech at the Media Giraffe Conference in Amherst in 2006 — “Is Media Performance Democracy’s Critical Issue?” — is required reading on this topic.

His thesis of “discarded readers” should be the real clarion call driving the “Save Newspapers” debate.

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