In the year 2000 this nation had 78,000 news reporters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As we head into 2020, that number has fallen by more than 36%. That’s nearly 30,000 less people gathering the information that is vital for a democracy to make informed decisions.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts another 10% decline by 2028.
Most of the losses have been at newspapers, according to the Pew Research Center; radio and TV have been roughly flat, while digital has seen small gains but nowhere near enough to offset the losses from print.
You might say, as people have said to me, that the internet has replaced newspapers like cars supplanted the horse and buggy and light bulbs rendered candles obsolete. But here’s my reply: When this nation switched from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, did the total miles traveled by Americans increase or decrease? And regarding lighting, did the total lumens produced rise or fall?
The obvious answer is that people traveled more in cars and had more light with electricity, many times over in both cases. Real progress was made.
But regarding news in the 21st century, we’ve gone backward. We have less of it today than we did 20 years ago. Yes, you might get breaking news out of Washington instantly, but there’s not the breadth of coverage on important issues that existed a generation ago. And most of the “reporting” on TV and online is opinion-based rather than fact-based. It’s sound and fury signifying nothing. That’s a tragedy for a nation that engraved the free exchange of information into its founding document as a guard of freedom, informing citizens about their government and communities.
How did this happen?
The assumption was that as the internet grew, the advertising and subscription money that had been devoted to print would shift to digital, allowing the reporting of the news, although changed, to remain a workable business proposition. But no one predicted that the web, a medium that should theoretically make it easier for anyone to start a news business because you don’t need a printing press or broadcast tower to share your message, would create a monopoly for two companies: Google and Facebook. They eat up a majority of the advertising dollars while contributing zero reporting. In fact, particularly with Facebook, they are a net drain on the useful information to society because their business models where more clicks and comments leads to showing posts to more viewers encourages sensational lies and slanderous gossip rather than reasoned discourse.
The loss to our nation can be seen in a palpable way with the Dec. 31 closing of the Newseum. The massive building on Pennsylvania Avenue in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol had the words of the 1st Amendment carved in stone in huge letters outside its main entrance. Its presence showed the necessity of a free press to our nation, and its interactive exhibits explained that message to millions.
But it was funded by wealthy newspaper owners, who aren’t so wealthy anymore and couldn’t afford to keep it going. Its loss, therefore, illustrates that as newspapers go so goes the chief protector of the 1st Amendment.
How is America going to survive this?
First, it must come from the resolve of the people to support independent, factual news reporting. I deeply appreciate, more than I can express, you who read our newspaper and invest your marketing budgets with us. I take it seriously to serve you so that you get the absolute best product we can possibly deliver, both in print and online. I think the same applies for my colleagues throughout this state and country.
Second, we must find ways to make the news business work online. It’s the biggest challenge we’ve faced, but it also creates new opportunities. As one of my favorite hymns says, “Not forever by still waters would we idly, quiet stay but would smite the living fountains from the rocks along our way.”
Let’s get to smiting in 2020.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him