The Tampa Tribune, a newspaper that long reflected and enhanced the lives of hundreds of thousands of Central Floridians, landed in driveways for the final time May 3, victim of a competitor buyout. That day also happened to be World Press Freedom Day.
In the wake of that depressing news, I asked myself a question I never expected to ask when I became a parent in 2005: What will our children do without newspapers?
For 300 years, newspapers informed and connected members of the community. Reporters and editors held civic leaders accountable. They shared stories that made home, home. However, kids growing up in the past decade live in a world where the public service provided by such dedicated, smart, committed journalists no longer seems valued.
The reasons for the newspaper industry’s demise – the emergence of the Internet as a source of “information” and cheap advertising, the greed and shortsightedness of those who held the purse strings – do not interest me much anymore. I am more concerned – as a journalist and as a father of two elementary-age children – about how the end of newspapers affects our culture.
I fear photojournalist Will Steacy, who documented the recent end of the Philadelphia Inquirer, said it best:
“When we lose reporters, editors, newsbeats and sections of papers, we lose coverage, information and a connection to our cities and our society, and, in the end, we lose ourselves.”
A quick story about my relationship with newspapers.
In the mid-1990s, when my career was just starting, I lived and worked in a place called Sebring, Fla. I was a young man on my own in a small, unfamiliar town. I was ambitious and optimistic. My future held Super Bowls and major-league baseball. I would one day travel the world and see and do amazing things.
Back then, though, I lived in a palmetto bug-infested, one-room efficiency on shallow Lake Jackson.
Sunday in Sebring was laundry day. It became a cherished ritual. I would stuff my dirty rags into a big duffel bag and head to the laundromat. On the way, I would swing by the 7-Eleven for coffee and to make change for the washer and the dryer. I would grab four extra quarters to drop into the box outside for a Sunday New York Times.
As my laundry spun and soaked and dried, I would while away the morning immersed in my favorite sections, my old friends the Week in Review, the Book Review, the NY Times Magazine, and Arts & Entertainment. I felt smarter after I read them, more refined – even though I was anything but. I was more informed, though, and I was more connected.
This was before the Internet took off, before Buzzfeed and Reddit and ESPN and Fox News established their dominance of the media world, before the fierce demands of immediacy began to trump thoughtful consideration and accuracy.
The 24-hour news cycle, however, won in the end. I, and thousands of other fellow journalists, lost. As did their readers.
With newspapers no longer a force for contemplative connectivity in our society, what are our children missing? How will their adulthood be different from ours, which was shaped in so many ways by the power of the press?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the deterioration of the political discourse in the United States has coincided with the demise of newspapers and the related winnowing of the watchdog media class. People consume their “news” in echo chamber silos that leave no room for opposing opinions to intrude, let alone hard, unbiased news.
Social media feeds and cable news channels only serve to reinforce fiercely held beliefs, often at the expense of truth.
Newspaper reporters and editors were, and still are, far from perfect arbiters of the local and national discourse. But back when TV and Internet news aggregators took their cues from trained, experienced journalists, the country felt smarter, more refined – even if it was anything but.
Still, I remain cautiously optimistic. We enjoy a different kind of connectivity now, a different kind of community. The Internet and social media helped shred newspapers, but they also have enabled a generation of creators and thought leaders to share knowledge at an unprecedented scale.
Something good could come of that. For the sake of our children, I hope so.