Vol. 4    No. 6
March 19, 2009 Archives
        I was thinking about the film “Absence of Malice” the other day. The film, starring Paul Newman and Sally
Field, highlighted how the power of the printed word — in this case a newspaper in Miami, Florida — could be
manipulated to serve the purposes and ambitions of public and private individuals.
        In one scene, a childhood friend of Paul Newman’s character had given him an alibi for a crime he did not
commit because he had accompanied her to Atlanta where she had received an abortion. She was from a very
traditional Catholic family. She spoke to Sally Fields’ character, an ambitious reporter not prone to thinking about
the impact of her reporting on those she wrote about, to have Newman’s alibi made public in the press. The next
morning as the newspapers are being delivered in the neighborhood, the friend is shown frantically trying to gather
the papers from her neighbors’ porches in a futile attempt to prevent her father and neighbors from finding out that
she had had an abortion. Once it had been put to print, the story became irrevocably a part of the public record.
        Things have dramatically changed in the print media for the past three years since The Capital City Hues
published its first edition on March 22, 2006. Back then, it seemed as if every major meeting or issue would be
reported on in one of the daily newspapers the next day. There were reporters who had the school board beat, the
city government beat and the state capitol beat. All kinds of things were found out that were going on behind the
scenes because the reporters had established strong reputations and long-term presences in the areas they were
reporting on. Whenever I went to a big event, it seemed that there always were reporters there. Press conferences
were crowded affairs. There was a plethora of news sources.
        But things have dramatically changed in the last three years. There are no beats anymore. Many reporters
from all media have gotten early retirements or have been laid off due to budget cuts. Many are now public
information officer for area organizations, businesses and agencies. There are events that have no one present from
the mainstream media. And as advertising placed in printed media has plummeted, the news sections in the daily
newspapers have shrunk and increasingly rely upon the AP and other news wires for content. Like large leviathans,
it seems that every week witnesses another major daily newspaper going under and out of circulation.
        For some, this just signals a sea change in the way that people get their news. During the past 20-30 years,
broadcast media had supplanted newspapers as the media from which they received their news and information.
Now it seems the Internet has been driving another nail in the coffin of newspapers as an increasingly larger
proportion relies on the Internet as their primary news source. And I am sure that broadcast media is also
experiencing the pinch In some ways, I don’t blame people for migrating to the Internet for their news. It is
extremely convenient and frees an individual to get their news when it is convenient to them. You don’t have to
wait for the 6 p.m. broadcast and you can get international news almost 24 hours earlier than you can in
newspapers. Instead of people adapting their lifestyles to get the news, the Internet has made the news convenient
to people.
        Yet I am dismayed by the demise of daily newspapers even though it could possibly open up opportunities for
“niche” newspapers like The Capital City Hues. Daily newspapers have served as the written record for our society.
Once it has been placed in print, it can’t be taken back. It can, perhaps, be clarified in future editions, but it can’t
be made to disappear. And while once something is placed on the Internet, it remains in cyberspace forever; a
“news” website can be changed instantaneously without any evidence that the information has been modified. A
plethora of “news” sites means anyone can put out the news. It also means there are a plethora of sources for
misinformation.
        And as local coverage declines — remember that information is power — local citizens have less information
available to them to make informed decisions about the things that affect their lives. Without a strong “fourth estate”
— independent provision of information and analysis by professional journalists — citizens will increasingly be
dependent upon information that has been designed and spun by public and private interests who have a stake in
the outcome that information might influence. Information might be provided or omitted without the prying of
independent sources like newspapers.
        When Barack Obama was elected president on November 4, 2008, what did people grab to preserve the
history of the moment? They instinctively grabbed up the nation’s newspapers because years from now, they could
be brought out of a drawer or box and allow one, once again, to relive the moment. For individuals, it was
newspapers that preserved history.
        Long ago, newspapers became a market commodity, a means to make high rates of return as opposed to
businesses that existed to report the news. The markets have now pulled a lot of money out of the newspaper
industry as financial wizards look for other industries to invest their money with a higher rate of return. And many
newspapers have begun to tank. Newspapers serve other purposes than just a means to make money. We can’t let
those other purposes go by the wayside for the functioning of our democracy is at stake. And that is more important
than all of the money in the world.
Reflections/Jonathan Gramling
             The printed word and democracy
Enis Ragland is looking at the impact of poverty in
Madison
TRACKING POVERTY