On The Death of Newspapers

The hot topic lately among the local blogs and news media is the death of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as we know it. It’s looking likely that the organization will keep a small staff and move to a controversial online-only format that will include aggregation.

Back in January, Erica C. Barnett wrote some smart remarks on SLOG about how frustrating it is to repeatedly hear the same alarmist voices about the death of newspapers. That blog posting really struck a chord with me. Barnett makes a moderate prediction on how the whole “real journalists vs amateur bloggers” debate will eventually shake out. She seems to keep the focus, though, on questions of quality and professionalism. But I think what people don’t talk directly enough about are the particular interests that are inevitably at stake in different venues of reportage.

I was reminded of this again recently with this week’s On the Media program on NPR about how ethnic newspapers are thriving. That show really gets it right. It points out how the ethnic composition of society has been rapidly changing while mainstream newspapers have remained stubbornly focused on their target demographic of the suburban white middle-class.

The death of newspapers isn’t about the triumph of new media, no matter what people may say. When people argue that newspapers have been vital to democracy, I can’t help but laugh. When have mainstream newspapers ever been venues for populist voices or organs for the oppressed? In actuality, they’ve tended to be ideological proponents of middle class values and maintainers of the status quo.

No, what this is all about is the growth of new social classes: vital immigrant populations, younger generations who refuse the strict divisions of being either a consumer or producer, previously “fringe” groups eager for publishing/interactive venues to develop their own social and political interests and subcultures. It is these new social classes, and not simply the new publishing opportunities of the web (which, alone, are inert), that threaten the hegemony of traditional journalism. I think a lot more needs to be said about what kinds of stories and information the so-called “new media” as well as the alternative print press are producing in the age of the newspaper’s death. What new interests are we seeing at work in blogs? Who gets to have a voice now, and who is still left out? How is all of this redefining what counts as worthwhile or credible stories or events? These are the real questions of substance—with real implications for democracy—that will determine what the death of newspapers will ultimately mean.

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