What's ailing American journalism?

David Awbrey

October 09, 1991|By David Awbrey

Wichita, Kan. -- MORE U.S. journalists fear they are near their last deadline. Over the past few weeks, at least five daily newspapers have folded, and others have announced layoffs. Subscriber totals are down at most papers. Advertising revenue is stagnant or dropping around the country.

And many reporters and editors have the distinct impression that the public doesn't love and idolize them.

Although used to reporting bad news about others, journalists have been reluctant to talk about their own misfortunes. Part of the reason is that many journalists don't like to see themselves in the news. A larger reason is that many journalists, like many schoolteachers, don't want to admit things are so bad that major reform is needed in their profession.

But whether it's SAT scores or circulation figures, the numbers ,, are depressing. From 1980 to 1990, the share of people ages 25 to 34 who read a daily newspaper dropped from 56 percent to 51 percent. The share of daily readers ages 35 to 44 fell from 66 percent to 60 percent.

Twenty-five years ago, 60 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 were daily newspaper readers; today, fewer than 30 percent in that age bracket are daily readers.

Ironically, some of those younger readers of 25 years ago are now newspaper editors and publishers charged with keeping their craft alive. At this point, their success depends largely on how the experiences and ideas of the 1960s and early 1970s will affect their careers.

Most 40-something journalists entered the profession during the Vietnam and Watergate eras, which are considered among the golden years of newspapering. Their role models included Seymour Hersh and Neil Sheehan, who revealed the official deceit of the Vietnam War, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting helped topple a president.

The preferred self-image was the journalist as idealist-turned-cynic through familiarity with the distrustful, secretive establishment. The main purpose of journalism was to pull back the Wizard's curtain and reveal the powers-that-be as deceptive, if not downright wicked.

In that respect, journalists were remarkably successful. Reporters uncovered corruption at the highest government and corporate levels. The scales fell from millions of American eyes, as some of the country's leaders were recognized as venal, greedy, petty politicians and executives who would risk lives and the national well-being for a vote or an extra penny of profit.

Yet something else happened. Americans started losing interest politics and public issues. Disgusted by what they read on the front page, millions of Americans were disillusioned with the political process and became absorbed in their own personal concerns.

Thus, for many of the same causes, newspaper readership and voter turnout are today in similar free falls. What began as an honest -- and long overdue -- journalistic effort to hold government accountable unwittingly contributed to a retreat from the public arena.

Too often in recent years, newspapers have responded to the disenchantment over national politics by distracting people from the reality around them. Some newspapers have stuffed their pages with the doings of self-indulgent celebrities or with "human-interest" articles, the more bizarre or offbeat the better.

After all, why should editors go about the hard work of questioning the quality of education when a flashy photo of Donald Trump's latest mistress will fill the same amount of space and draw fewer complaints about a "biased" press?

Such news judgment buttresses the bureaucracies of schools, governments and other large institutions that want to maintain a monopoly on power. That, in turn, removes the public even further from public issues and makes newspapers even less relevant to most people's lives.

To thrive into the 21st century, newspapers must help rekindle the public spirit of the American people. The way to do that is through another 1960s ideal -- participatory democracy. People need to take control over their lives and sense that they can make a difference in improving the world around them.

That means community journalism should have a strong resurgence in the 1990s. With Congress gridlocked, the president obsessed with foreign policy and state governments broke, the best way Americans can change society is to renew their own neighborhoods.

Indeed, the most pressing matters for most Americans are primarily local or individual concerns -- education, crime, quality health care, jobs, family stability, unwanted pregnancy (abortion) and moral/religious values.

What's missing among many journalists is an awareness that democracy depends on individual activism. To work well, the U.S. political system must offer the chance of personal transformation, as well as social reform.

Most Americans want a society that allows them the greatest opportunity to fulfill their own aspirations and also provides a nurturing environment for their children and families. A newspaper can be a valuable ally in developing such a society, but journalists must drop their self-conscious mask of isolated objectivity and affirm a commitment of cooperation -- of a shared mission -- with readers.

Democracy isn't played from the sidelines, where many journalists prefer to stand. Public affairs isn't Monday morning quarterbacking, which is many journalists' favorite pastime. American politics is a participation sport that requires everyone's attention and energy.

In fact, the greatest danger to the future of newspapers isn't illiteracy or even a slump in retail advertising; it's the continued alienation of journalists from their own neighbors.

P David Awbrey is editorial page editor of the Wichita Eagle.

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