Long gone are the blacksmiths, the milk men and the ice man — once familiar figures — all replaced by innovation designed to advance our daily way of life. Technology in our lifetime has been relentless, pushing beyond bounds that at one time were unimaginable, leaving us breathless and a little bewildered.
And now printed newspapers are going the way of the lamplighter.
It is an instance of technology altering our routine, especially the way we get information that helps us understand our society. In other words, news. Since the founding of the nation the primary source of information was the printed newspaper until technology intervened with the advent of television and then the internet. Today, despite the incredible amount of media available we might be less informed than ever before.
The internet has savaged the economic base of journalism and replaced it with a frenetic cascade of information that can defy reason. This has disabled the basic infrastructure of traditional journalism to the point that there is a good chance that a city like Cleveland eventually will not have a printed newspaper.
It has already made an impact. By 2006, The Plain Dealer was forced to offer 60 journalists buyouts. Fifty more were either let go or bought out two years later and 47 followed in 2013. It is expected many more will be let go this year when the Newspaper Guild contract runs out.
Not only did the cuts reduce the number of reporters and editors covering the news, it affected the quality of the coverage as veteran journalists were replaced in many instances with recent college graduates.
In a sense, newspapers were like a university. Young aspirants were made seasoned journalists through a beat system that taught how a city really functioned. Spend a few years covering the police, the courts and City Hall and you had an awakening far beyond that of civics textbooks. In this process you met people from all walks of life and the experiences took you to parts of the city one normally did not visit, which gave you insight into other cultures. This all enabled you to make news judgments later involved with more complicated issues of the community. It was a rich and unique experience.
There appears to be no limit to the number of young people who seek work in the media, but the financial rewards are less appealing than in the past, which means that when one achieves the necessary experience to be a competent journalist the financial limitations will make other pursuits beckon.
The public always held newspapers in some disdain, largely because of its role as the bearer of bad news. The mournful cry of “fake news” is hardly a new lament. Most people have no idea how a newspaper functioned and how editors challenged reporters to be fair and balanced. A lot of stress in a newsroom centered on objectivity.
In many ways newspapers gave more to readers than they got back. They were once a unifying force in communities, the face of a city and a daily visitor to your doorstep. They promoted culture and trends, told you who to vote for, where to shop, where to eat, what to wear and how to live. They recorded your death.
When Cleveland was blessed with two newspapers, the competition between them was a bonus for readers since there was a dual set of lenses through which to see the city and its vicissitudes.
The way things are with today’s news cycle, social media erode that journalistic infrastructure, leaving citizens on their own to decipher truth. And in an age of information overload, readers will withdraw from embracing news rather than absorbing it, particularly if it’s in regard to politics or municipal affairs.
We are at risk of creating a greater pool of uninformed citizens. People are easy prey for the political dog whistle, innuendo, conspiracy theories and outright lies. To add to this, the rise of social media and its lack of traditional journalistic standards has added to the growing skepticism surrounding the media. Part of being a good citizen has always been to be informed. Today that means the need to have several sources of news.
One must apply common sense in evaluating information. Be aware that many on social media want to mislead and manipulate. Know that cable news is tailored to make money and designed to attract persons who want their political considerations ratified.
Above all, reader beware.
All of this raises a delicate question. If the old business model of news is failing, is there a civic responsibility to maintain channels of information that ensure the well being of a community? And is there a way of subsidizing news-gathering organizations without affecting their credibility?