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May 29th
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A Deeper Need for the Print Newspaper

tom_honigThe story line is a direct one: newspapers are dying. Big city dailies? Dying. Small-town papers? On their way. Free dailies? Hovering over the abyss.  If indeed newspapers are critically ill, their fate has to be one of the most heavily covered stories of this or any century. Did the railroads get this kind of treatment? Did blacksmiths get to read daily about how nobody is any good with an anvil anymore? Were there daily accounts about how nobody wants ice delivered to their door anymore?

I declared my journalism career over about a year and a half ago when I quit my job as editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Obviously, as these words appear here, I’m backsliding a bit, but much of the decision to leave revolved around the fear that things were only going to get worse.

Hmmm. Now I’m not so sure. Take a look at the remarkable developments in Iran over the past weeks. Certainly, the ability of Iranian protesters to communicate with the outside world is a story of online communication, of Twitter and text messages and videos on cellphones. New technology has allowed hundreds of thousands of protesters to communicate with the outside world in a manner mindful of China in 1989—but oh so much more effective.

 

…there’s still good, solid coverage in most print newspapers, particularly from the same large metro newspapers that are now so threatened. The trouble is, most of us don’t notice. Most of us don’t read stories every day from Tehran. Or Baghdad. Or Darfur.


But there’s a deeper need, at least to us who are thousands of miles away in the United States. We’re an insulated country, despite all our ability to travel and to communicate with the rest of the world. Those on the both sides of the political aisle too often gaze through our American viewfinder when considering the rest of the world. Some say: Obama should have reacted more forcefully. Or others say: this movement could have never started if Bush were still president.

This is one case where it may not matter what an American leader has to say: this is an Iranian development, and it’s a remarkable one.

I had watched television pictures—most of them marked “amateur video” on television, and I had followed some dispatches out of Iran on Twitter and on blogs. But by far the most informative information was collected in ink on paper—that venerable institution, the newspaper.

I spent a good three hours reading The New York Times over the weekend, a cup of coffee by my side. I read dispatches from correspondents—cut off from the action in some ways, but nevertheless offering insight and context not available on television. I read the opinion column—not the ones concentrating on what Obama was doing—but instead by journalists like Tom Friedman and David Ignatius, those who have spent years abroad, interviewing and learning the nuances about far-off countries that we really don’t understand well enough here back home.

From the Sunday Times of London (I saw it online) came this: there was evidence of massive voter fraud; in fact, the number of votes cast in some provinces actually exceeded the number of eligible voters.

It takes a lot for most Americans to pay attention to world affairs. That’s why important international stories are mostly missing from our television sets.  I was drawn to a rant that came my way from Ann Curry, the NBC newswoman and Today show anchor who admittedly has done her share of soft, cute features on television. But this day she was on fire. Speaking at a journalism conference about foreign news coverage, here’s what she said: “The reason I have to fight every time to do these (important) stories is because … it’s hard to get a majority of Americans or even a significant number of Americans in NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS’s world to care. I think journalism is a battle and I feel the scars and I see the blood on my sword on a daily basis for fights for foreign coverage to be more present in our broadcasting.”

Much of the same problem plagues the print media. But there’s still good, solid coverage in most print newspapers, particularly from the same large metro newspapers that are now so threatened.

The trouble is, most of us don’t notice. Most of us don’t read stories every day from Tehran. Or Baghdad. Or Darfur. Sometimes we don’t read about what’s happening in Sacramento, even though it affects us directly.

But there are reporters, still there, plugging away in relative obscurity. And when that big story hits—even halfway around the world—it’s a damn good thing they’re there.

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