By ANN McFEATTERS
Scripps Howard News Service
February 18, 2007
Newspapers are in big trouble - circulation is falling for many if not most papers. Wall Street hates newspapers on the grounds they don't make as much money as they used to make, although compared with many other businesses they are still lucrative. Advertisers are seeking new venues.
The number of books published in this country is declining. As many as 40 million American adults are barely literate. Many college students are doing more poorly than their predecessors did on reading-comprehension tests.
Instead, we are watching more television, playing video games and being mesmerized by online graphics.
Is this bad? And what is it going to do to the practice of democracy?
Some think this is a good trend, which will lead to less stigmatizing of people because they can't read or write. In other words, people are not stupid just because they are not literate.
This argument holds that "written language is not a necessity of life; it's just a technology," as William Crossman, an expert on talking computers, put it. Writing in The Futurist, published by the World Future Society, he said, "Just as the car replaced the horse and wagon, speech and graphics and video streaming over the Internet will replace written texts, and talking computers will replace text-driven computers."
Crossman forecasts the day when everyone will be talking with computers and "tossing our obsolete keyboards into recycling bins."
I'd be the first to admit that there's a lot of sloppy, bad journalism out there, but the prospect of less news on paper scares the daylights out of me. How will we really know what our governments - federal, state and local - are doing with our money, our laws and our future? Who will keep an eye on the special interests in society? Who will ferret out corruption?
Television news is a skeleton of its former self, and half the time it's reduced to repeating what's in the newspapers. But at the same time, fewer newspaper reporters are being paid to report on national and international news. Only a few U.S. reporters receive salaries to travel abroad to find out what's going on in obscure places. We rely on foreigners to report the news, even though we're at war in an age of terrorism and, more than ever, need to know what's going on around the globe.
Ironically, even as newspaper readership is declining precipitously in the United States, it is growing in developing nations. Freedom is hard to maintain without free expression of ideas.
Yet our own country has had a long love-hate relationship with the daily printed word.
Thomas Jefferson is often quoted as saying, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
However, the great man also said, "I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it." And he said, "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers."
As we find ourselves in the middle of a heated race for the next president, we have to wonder whether we will know enough to vote responsibly if there are fewer sources of serious news about the candidates.
If there are fewer independently paid reporters trailing presidential candidates around, will we all depend on just a few to tell us how the candidates differ, how they handle themselves, what their gaffes really mean and how they're doing with potential voters?
What will happen if the electorate becomes even less informed, less active and less independent-minded, as the National Endowment for the Arts says is already happening?
The die is cast. Americans are disaffected with their newspapers. The future is said to be OK for local news reports, but poor for broader coverage of news beyond that. Perhaps the Internet and other information technologies - new media - will be the answer.
We'll all still be expected to read, but it may matter less whether we read well and understand what we are reading because the content of what we are reading may become far more superficial.
We may get the government we deserve instead of the government we wish to have.
In the meantime, thank you, dear reader, for bucking the trend.
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